Tuesday, January 08, 2013

The problem with John Brennan

By Michael J.W. Stickings

The focus yesterday was on Chuck Hagel, whom President Obama tapped for defense secretary, but the president's nominee for post-Petraeus CIA director, White House insider and key Obama advisor John Brennan, deserves some attention as well, because it says a lot -- a lot that isn't good -- about Obama's national security values and priorities.

While I continue to object to Hagel's nomination, I don't object to Hagel himself. He's a conservative Republican, but his record on U.S. militarism over the past decade has been extremely good, turning on the Iraq War when it was rather unpopular to do so, particularly for a Republican, and proving to be an admirable realist in his approach to the military. (As something of a liberal interventionist, I find his realism admirable but hardly sufficient. But I'll take his realism over the right-wing militarism you find among the neocons. That's an easy call.)

Indeed, my problem with the nomination is not so much that it's going to Hagel but that it's going to a Republican when there are strong Democratic alternatives, including especially Michèle Flournoy, who would be just as good, if not better. As Jon Chait pointed out yesterday, the only thing that really sets Hagel apart is the fact that he's been the target of a vicious smear campaign led by neocon Bill Kristol. Although, to be fair, he does have other things going for him as well, including the fact that he's a vet and that he has a strong relationship with both Obama and Vice President Biden. 

Anyway, my point is that whatever my concerns I can accept Hagel at the Pentagon. He'll be fine. Far more troubling is Brennan's appointment, which suggests once more that the president's objective is not just to continue the Bush-Cheney national security state but to extend and expand it (even if on at least one key issue, torture, he has pulled back).

Here's Glenn Greenwald:

Prior to President Obama's first inauguration in 2009, a controversy erupted over reports that he intended to appoint John Brennan as CIA director. That controversy, in which I participated, centered around the fact that Brennan, as a Bush-era CIA official, had expressly endorsed Bush's programs of torture (other than waterboarding) and rendition and also was a vocal advocate of immunizing lawbreaking telecoms for their role in the illegal Bush NSA eavesdropping program. As a result, Brennan withdrew his name from consideration, issuing a bitter letter blaming "strong criticism in some quarters prompted by [his] previous service with the" CIA.

This "victory" of forcing Brennan's withdrawal proved somewhat Pyrrhic, as Obama then appointed him as his top counter-terrorism adviser, where he exerted at least as much influence as he would have had as CIA Director, if not more. In that position, Brennan last year got caught outright lying when he claimed Obama's drone program caused no civilian deaths in Pakistan over the prior year. He also spouted complete though highly influential falsehoods to the world in the immediate aftermath of the Osama bin Laden killing, including claiming that bin Laden "engaged in a firefight" with Navy SEALS and had "used his wife as a human shield". Brennan has also been in charge of many of Obama's most controversial and radical policies, including "signature strikes" in Yemen - targeting people without even knowing who they are - and generally seizing the power to determine who will be marked for execution without any due process, oversight or transparency.

I've been a strong Obama supporter, certainly more supportive than Greenwald, but this is the one area where I've remained staunchly critical, and for the most part in agreement with Greenwald:

It is a perfect illustration of the Obama legacy that a person who was untouchable as CIA chief in 2008 because of his support for Bush's most radical policies is not only Obama's choice for the same position now, but will encounter very little resistance. Within this change one finds one of the most significant aspects of the Obama presidency: his conversion of what were once highly contentious right-wing policies into harmonious dogma of the DC bipartisan consensus.

Yes, it's nice that the Pentagon will (likely) be run by a realist who doesn't want to bomb Iran, but at the same time it's clear that Obama's unchecked war on terror will continue unabated, with an eager champion at the CIA.

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