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Obama, John Brennan, Secret Wars & Unrestrained Powers

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Four years ago John Brennan withdrew his name from consideration as Obama’s CIA Director due to widespread objections to his appointment over concerns raised about his support of Bush’s torture policies. Although deemed unfit to serve as CIA Director on his first go around, Brennan was again appointed to the post on January 7th. Responding to questions with non-answers at his Senate confirmation hearing yesterday, John Brennan averted discussing the most contentious aspects of Obama’s war on terror policies, namely the issues surrounding the administration’s policy of “targeted killing” and his role as architect and avid supporter of those polices.

 When Senator John Wyden asked Brennan whether or not he thought the President had the authority to kill Americans, Brennan offered nothing but circuitous garble in response:

 SEN. RON WYDEN: Let me ask you several other questions with respect to the president’s authority to kill Americans. I’ve asked you how much evidence the president needs to decide that a particular American can be lawfully killed and whether the administration believes that the president can use this authority inside the United States. In my judgment, both the Congress and the public need to understand the answers to these kind of fundamental questions. What do you think needs to be done to ensure that members of the public understand more about when the government thinks it’s allowed to kill them, particularly with respect to those two issues, the question of evidence and the authority to use this power within the United States?

JOHN BRENNAN: I have been a strong proponent of trying to be as open as possible with these programs, as far as our explaining what we’re doing. What we need to do is optimize transparency on these issues, but at the same time optimize secrecy and the protection of our national security. I don’t think that it’s one or the other. It’s trying to optimize both of them. And so, what we need to do is make sure we explain to the American people what are the thresholds for action, what are the procedures, the practices, the processes, the approvals, the reviews. The Office of Legal Counsel advice establishes the legal boundaries within which we can operate. It doesn’t mean that we operate at those out of boundaries. And, in fact, I think the American people will be quite pleased to know that we’ve been very disciplined, very judicious, and we only use these authorities and these capabilities as a last resort.

The hearing was itself a staged spectacle. On Wednesday, the day before the hearing was scheduled NBC obtained a copy of the Department of Justice memoranda that purports to justify Obama’s targeted killing program without due process. Conscious of the growing controversy over the targeted killings in addition to Brennan’s controversial second appointment, the Senate Intelligence Committee acted in tandem with the White House pretty much establishing a faux hearing for John Brennan while providing a misleading memo whose legal premises the committee was supposed to accept.

 On Capitol Hill concerned Senators ceremoniously grilled the assassination czar and later proposed a piecemeal effort to implement more transparency and accountability to the extrajudicial killing process-a new court, “analogous to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court” that would oversee targeted killings. Journalist Jeremy Scahill described Brennan’s confirmation hearing: “it really was more less a love fest between the most powerful senators when it comes to intelligence operations in the U.S. and John Brennan.” As the hearing progressed it became clear that more was left unsaid than said. For instance, there was no discussion about Obama’s “signature strikes” where intelligence officials identify targets who they assert are terrorists or affiliated with terrorists and pose an “imminent” threat to the American people. Also left out from this interrogation, which the Washington Post described as “intense” and “aggressive”, was the Obama administration’s killing of three American citizens in Yemen within a two week period.

 Instead of probing John Brennan on the legality, scope and secret details of the covert assassination program, the Senate Committee, at times, seemed more focused on minimizing the human cost of Obama’s covert war. The “very low number of civilian casualties that result from such strikes” surfaced as a mantra during the proceedings. Referring to the role of the committee’s role Senator Dianne Fienstien stated, “this committee has done significant oversight of the governments conduct of targeted strikes and the figures we have obtained from the executive branch which we have done our utmost to verify confirm that the number of civilian casualties that have resulted from such strikes each year has typically been in the single digits.” One strike that occurred last year in al-Majalah, Yemen where 40 Bedouin villagers, dozens women and children, were “shredded into meat with U.S. cluster bombs” overwhelmingly contradicts Fienstein’s carefully verified death counts. The evidence gathered by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s Covert War on Terror Project also points to the contrary:

 CIA Drone Strikes in Pakistan 2004–2013

Total US strikes: 363
Obama strikes: 311
Total reported killed: 2,634-3,468
Civilians reported killed: 473-893
Children reported killed: 176
Total reported injured: 1,268-1,431

US Covert Action in Yemen 2002–2013

Total confirmed US operations (all): 54-64
Total confirmed US drone strikes: 42-52
Possible extra US operations: 135-157
Possible extra US drone strikes: 77-93
Total reported killed (all): 374-1,112
Total civilians killed (all): 72-178
Children killed (all): 27-37

US Covert Action in Somalia 2007–2013

Total US strikes: 10-23
Total US drone strikes: 3-9
Total reported killed: 58-170
Civilians reported killed: 11-57
Children reported killed: 1-3

So what does John Brennan’s appointment to the CIA directorship and the secrecy surrounding everything from Obama’s targeted killing program to Brennan’s hearing itself say about Obama and his war on terror?

Obama has come to embody accuser, prosecutor, judge jury and executioner in his role as President. The very process of executing this role is one shrouded in secrecy and carried out exclusively within the executive branch. A game of cards is literally employed before Obama and his administrative underlings choose who should die at cutely named “Terror Tuesday” meetings. Here top intelligence officials go over the kill list with Obama identifying terrorists on “baseball cards” before deciding whether or not to give the fatal green light of assassination.

By asserting that “an informed, high-level official of the US government has determined that the targeted individual poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the US”, the memoranda strategically equates the accused with the guilty. Absent judicial proceedings , Obama’s intelligence advisors hold the gavel in one hand, the kill list in the other. In sum, because some top ranking intelligence official has said a person is guilty, without contest that person is guilty and should die. The reasoning is similar to that used to construct the pretext to invade Iraq. In 2003 top ranking intelligence officials George Tenet, then Director of the CIA and his Deputy Director John McLaughlin informed President Bush that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction; therefore WMDs existed posing an imminent threat to national security and America needed to invade Iraq. The dangers of this perverse logic became eminently clear once the United States was embroiled in the war in Iraq. By then it was already too late to assess the credibility of this intelligence or undo the invasion. The same holds for Anwar Awlaki and his sixteen year old son among many others whose fate has been decided in the shadows and whose guilt has been determined without due-process.  

The irony underlying the popular justification for Obama’s use of covert drone strikes (in addition to night raids and tomahawk cruise missile strikes, the even less discussed scandal of Obama’s secret executions) is as Glenn Greenwald pointed out that “without any due process, transparency or oversight, there is no way to know who is a “senior al-Qaida leader” and who is posing an “imminent threat” to Americans. All that can be known is who Obama, in total secrecy, accuses of this”.  Is it possible that in appointing the man who wrote the manual for these operations Obama is himself threatening national security?

Two factors suggest that this is the case.

First if waging war, covert or overt heightens the risk of Americans being attacked by an enemy America has waged war against at home, on the battlefield or at bases abroad, then relying on the Bush/Cheyney “world-is-a-battlefield-theory” undermines the safety of America’s soldiers and civilians by putting them up against enemies spanning an entire globe in one big, unlimited battlefield. The memo demonstrates that this theory is central to Obama’s war on terror and the operations his administration carries out to wage it. According to the memo, the President “retains authority to use force against al-Qaida and associated forces outside the area of active hostilities“. Essentially there are no geographical limits to where the president can carry out targeted killings. Furthermore, as reports have indicated, America’s use of force “outside the area of active hostilities”, contrary to it’s stated purpose of undermining terrorism engenders terrorism. In countries like Yemen and Pakistan populations that have been terrorized by aerial strikes and drone attacks have come to sympathize with Islamist struggles against western imperial might. As  Sir Peter Ustinov put it: “Terrorism is the poor man’s war, and war is terrorism of the rich.”

Second, in order to carry the covert drone war bases need to be built around the world for drones to fly in and out of. One of Bin Laden’s stated reasons for orchestrating the 9/11 attack was because Americans had military bases in Saudi Arabia. Islamic law prohibits non-Muslims from entering the holy cities like Mecca and Medina, both located in Saudi Arabia. After the 9/11 attacks Bush quietly closed those bases. Medea Benjamin, author of “Drone Warfare” noted on Democracy Now : “Now we have under Barack Obama, in fact under the leadership of John Brennan who was stationed in Saudi Arabia, a renegotiating of opening up a base for drones” in Saudi Arabia.  John Brennan’s current role as the Deputy National Security Advisor for Homeland Security is primarily to oversee plans that protect America from terrorist threats. Running military bases in Saudi Arabia has already proven its fatal consequences. Nevertheless, John Brennan, Obama’s chief counterterrorism advisor and author of the President’s controversial policy of targeted killing is lined up to protect America at another more prestigious post as Director of the CIA. With American military bases sprawling across the globe it is imaginable that their construction will exacerbate tensions much like they did before the towers fell.

What this all amounts to is a disturbing trend of totalizing power. Institutionalizing the exercise of execution in wreckless disregard of due-process laws that date back to the Magna Carta illustrates the frightening reach of Obama’s executive authority, an authority whose premises are being increasingly embraced by partisan lackeys. Where the Bush Administration institutionalized warrantless wiretapping and torture, the Obama Administration is institutionalizing murder. From Kabul and Sanaa to New York and Washington the awesome powers of the President will be exercised unrestrained.

 

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Written by yourinquirerprofoundly

February 9, 2013 at 7:45 pm

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