‘Mr Drone’: That ‘other’ Obama nominee and the American ‘mainstream’

While Chuck Hagel is taking all the US attention, few have noticed the nomination of John Brennan to head the CIA.

Files John Brennan to be nominated CIA director
During Obama's first term, Brennan was known to critics and supporters alike as "Mr Drone" [EPA]

Lost amidst all the fuss over whether Obama nominee Chuck Hagel is – or isn’t – acceptable to the Israeli lobby (or whatever), is the crucial, but strangely low-profile, debate over the president’s nomination of controversial counterterrorism chief John Brennan to head up the CIA.

The 25-year agency veteran, who first tied himself to Obama when the then-Illinois Senator was launching his long-shot campaign for the Oval Office, makes Hagel look positively liberal. This early support for an Illinois back bencher paid off for Brennan, for when Obama took office he immediately turned to the CIA veteran for his expertise on the war on terrorism.

While Brennan’s official title during Obama’s first term was US Deputy National Security Advisor for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, he was known to critics and supporters alike as “Mr Drone” – the official behind the administration’s more than 350 separate drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia that have killed more than 3400 people, including an estimated 891 civilians.

“No politically appointed official in US history has played such a prominent role in killing so many people outside of a war zone as John Brennan,” Foreign Policy’s Micah Zenka writes, adding that Brennan is the “most lethal bureaucrat” in Washington.

‘Assassination czar’

That may well be, but while Brennan hasn’t exactly been given “a pass” by either Democrats or Republicans (and has been dubbed the administration’s “assassination czar” by American progresssives), his most predictable critics have been less than outspoken in opposing his nomination.

One of the reasons may well be that Brennan believes the CIA should be “demilitarised” (which has gained him the support of the agency’s powerful senior analysts), and its drone war turned over to the Pentagon – which is where it belongs.

 Obama to nominate Hagel and Brennan

Although doing so probably won’t end the programme (should it actually happen), senior military officers are known to be sceptical of its utility, and intelligence veterans support Brennan’s position on transforming the post-Patraeus CIA back into what it was intended to be – an agency that gathers intelligence instead of running push-button wars.

Then too, the seemingly endless war on terrorism is wearing thin on senior military officers who are increasingly loathe to explain how littering Pakistan’s streets with “collateral damage” will bring the war to an end. “The drone programme is a classic ‘effects based operation’, the effect of which is that it’s ineffective,” a Pentagon military planner bitterly notes. “It’s the best recruiting tool that extremists have.”

While Brennan would undoubtedly disagree with this (and strongly), he’s credited by some with actually scaling back the drone programme’s more controversial elements.

In 2008, after Obama took office, Brennan reportedly sided with the president in questioning “signature strikes” – targeting groups of men who “bear certain signatures, or defining characteristics”, but whose identities aren’t known.

Brennan also sided with sceptics (primarily in the military) over a series of planned CIA drone strikes on Somalia’s “Al Shabaab” militant group, quietly but effectively siding with the Pentagon’s view that the planned campaign amounted to “carpet bombing”.

Then too, Brennan says what he means which, while it doesn’t always endear him to liberals, gives conservatives fits: He’s advocated an end to “Iran bashing”, described “jihad” as a “legitimate tenet of Islam”, called Jerusalem “Al Quds” (he speaks fluent Arabic) and has said that he supports dialogue with “the moderate elements” of Hezbollah.

Ideological conservatives

While any one of these statements would have buried Chuck Hagel (and for the record, Brennan walked back his statement on Hezbollah), they’ve somehow slid off of Brennan – who’s chances of being confirmed as CIA Director remain “astronomically high“.

The reason? “No one ever lost a vote by killing a Muslim,” a Pentagon official told me this week.

That statement might be viewed as insulting, were it not so true.

Indeed, back in 2008, Brennan was forced to withdraw his name as Obama’s nominee for CIA Director over criticism of his support for both “enhanced interrogation techniques” and “rendition” during the Bush years, allegations which he later strenuously denied.

Perhaps he spoke too soon: The fact that Brennan was a top CIA official through the blunder-filled Bush years actually enhances his chances for confirmation. Then too, Brennan might have disagreed with “signature strikes” but they went ahead anyway (in Yemen), and he’s supported the killing of Americans “linked” to terrorist groups without due process. Conservatives are cheering: that’s two strikes – in his favour.

What an irony: Brennan, who never served in the military (and who insists that the legal basis of America’s remote control killing programme remain secret), is described as a “stand up guy”, while Chuck Hagel, who carried a rifle (and was wounded) in America’s most controversial war, is described by those who defend their country by wielding a pen as “a gutless dove“.

There are other ironies and they’re worth mentioning – if only to serve as a reminder on just how far to the right America remains.

Both Brennan and Hagel are essentially ideological conservatives, both men supported George Bush’s war in Iraq, both support drone strikes on “extremists”, both support the war on terrorism – and both remain the best hope of ending it.

Mark Perry is a journalist and author of the recently released Talking To Terrorists.