BY SPENCER ACKERMAN
During a contentious and at times raucous Senate hearing, John Brennan, President Obama’s nominee to run the CIA, said the government agonizes over authorizing lethal drone strikes.
The deadly strikes have attracted such acrimony at home and abroad that Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif., the chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence) ordered the public removed from Brennan’s nomination hearing after protesters yelled out their objections to the program. For the first time in public, Brennan expressed frustration that “the people standing up today” did not understand the government’s dilemma.
The public should understand “the care we take, the agony we go through, to make sure we do not have any collateral injuries and deaths,” Brennan said. “People are reacting to a lot of falsehoods out there.”
Yet the strikes are officially classified, preventing the public from knowing much about them. Feinstein, echoed by other senators, said that the rationale for the level of secrecy overhanging the centerpiece of U.S. counterterrorism efforts is “long gone.”
Feinstein said the total civilian casualties caused by the strikes each year are in the “single digits.” That’s disputed by numerous studies by nongovernmental organizations, although their ability to investigate is strongly limited by the secrecy of the drone program and the dangerous terrain in which it operates. In 2011, Danger Room published photographs from Pakistan purporting to show the aftermath of drone strikes, which included dead children. A United Nations inquiry into the strikes has recently begun.
Brennan said the public was under the “misimpression” that drone strikes were launched to punish “past transgressions.” Instead, they are “only to save lives when there is no other alternative to mitigate that threat.” Yet the government has never described the alternatives it must exhaust before launching the strikes overseas. A Justice Department “white paper” leaked on Monday asserted the U.S. government can authorize a drone strike when it considers other methods to represent too great a danger to U.S. personnel.
Brennan, currently President Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser, said he hoped he could “optimize transparency” while at the same “optimiz[ing] secrecy” for the classified elements of the drone program. “It’s not one or the other, we have to optimize both of them,” he said. Brennan suggested the Obama administration ought to make more speeches explaining to the public what the targeted program is and isn’t.
Under questioning from Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the Senate committee’s lead civil libertarian, Brennan said the government ought to acknowledge when it had mistakenly killed civilians during the targeted killings. “We can acknowledge it to our foreign partners” and “acknowledge it publicly.”
That acknowledgement has never happened in the 11 years since the United States first successfully weaponized a Predator drone.
"The public should understand “the care we take, the agony we go through, to make sure we do not have any collateral injuries and deaths,” Brennan said"
Well, that makes me feel a lot better.