The dangerous rebranding of John Brennan

Makeup may help coverup a scar, but it can’t erase the history of how the scar was formed.

John Brennan testifies in Senate confirmation
Brennan's nomination for the Directorship of the CIA is indicative of President Obama's plans for expansion of the drone campaign [Reuters]

The timing couldn’t have been coincidental. Just as a previously secret memo to Congress from the US Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Council was released by NBC News and picked up by every major media outlet, the process of rebranding President Obama’s pick to head the CIA, John Brennan, from enabler of torture and mastermind of the drone assassination, to a crusader for peace and civil rights began in earnest.

This is the second time Brennan has been nominated for the Directorship of the CIA by Obama. His first nomination, back in 2009, was scuttled because of his alleged involvement in the Bush Administration’s torture programme. He remained at the core of the President’s intelligence and counter-terrorism coterie, however, serving as his Advisor for Counterterrorism and Homeland Security. In this capacity, according to the President, he “developed and has overseen our comprehensive counterterrorism strategy – a collaborative effort across the government, including intelligence and defence and homeland security, and law enforcement agencies”.

As far as Obama is concerned, the strategy Brennan has designed and executed – including widening the use of drones for assassinations and continuing the extraordinary rendition program, has not only helped to “embed our efforts in a strong legal framework” but reflects a deep level of integrity and commitment “to the values that define us as Americans“.

A nation of laws, freedoms and values?

Like his predecessor, President Obama is desperate to give his prosecution of the War on Terror – the term was banned early in Obama’s first term but has recently been making a comeback – some sort of “strong legal framework”, in order to push back challenges to policies from critics. The White House, so far with the support of the Federal courts, has refused to release the actual legal arguments justifying and laying out the rules for the use of targeted killings, although the Senate is now pressing harder to release the full legal rationale behind the targeting of American citizens, if not the broader drone programme.

The Administration is arguing that Brennan, and by extension the President and the entire national security and counter-terrorism establishment, “understands we are a nation of laws… asks the tough question and he insists on high and rigorous standards”. Brennan has promised that if he’s confirmed he would “make it my mission to ensure that the CIA[‘s] work always reflects the liberties, the freedoms, and the values that we hold so dear”.

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The problem is that the “values” that Americans hold dear increasingly includes support for torture, which puts Congress in a very difficult predicament of deciding whether it’s worth picking a fight about a civil liberties which increasing numbers of Americans either aren’t concerned about or actively side with their violation, at least under certain circumstances.

Brennan, a twenty-five year veteran of the CIA, is routinely described as someone who knows well the Arab/Muslim world. He is “fluent” in Arabic, and even wrote an MA thesis on Human Rights in Egypt.

Interestingly, however, he argued that there is no such thing as “absolute human rights” that would be applicable to Egyptians, for example, which is why he supported censorship of the media and abuses of power, this at a time during the late Sadat era, when Egypt clearly was at a tipping point, as evidenced by the assassination of Sadat soon thereafter. Such a rationale clearly has little room for supporting democracy, particularly if democracy contradicts US policies.

Not only does this attitude reflect US support for Sadat and then Mubarak, but it accounts for the untrammelled support for even more corrupt and venal client states like Saudi Arabia, where Brennan in fact served as station chief for several years, and where it now turns out – Surprise! Surprise! – that the US is operating a secret drone base. In short, Brennan’s worldview has been shaped by the utterly amoral, violent world of the US-Arab intelligence nexus, which has no room for issues such as human rights, democracy or indigenously guided development.

Evil and immanence

A major component of the argument that attempts to portray Brennan as concerned about complying with US and international law is the idea that only al-Qaeda or “associated” operatives who are involved in planning “immanent” attacks are allowed to be targeted by drones. But the just released White Paper waters down this assurance by “broadening” the concept of immanence to include suspected planning or other activities that aren’t related to planning for an attack in the immediate future, a “chilling” development according to critics that allows for easy manipulation in practice while retaining the appearance of abiding by the rule of law. This is especially troubling in light of the policy of using “signature strikes” which define most military age males in a region as enough of a potential terrorist threat to warrant launching drones against them without any direct evidence they are planning any attack against US forces or interests.

How does this happen? How can a Constitutional Law professor and community activist (President Obama) and a Jesuit-trained intelligence analyst with an interest in Just War theory (Brennan) so easily distort language and contort the meaning of freedom and security to support programmes that have demonstrably killed many innocent civilians and violate US and international law, and in so doing directly damage America’s standing globally?

Ultimately, it comes down to the fact that neither the President nor Brennan are interested in (or indeed, institutionally capable of) understanding the roots problems underlying the rise of jihadi politics – authoritarian and corrupt systems that syphon off a disproportionate amount of a country’s wealth for the use of a small elite while disempowering and often impoverishing the majority of the population of countries like Egypt, Morocco, or so many other allies in the region.

The system is not the problem – how could it be, for Brennan, when he’s spent his entire career ensconced within it while Obama is now its chief administrator and “manager”. Instead, Brennan (and apparently his boss) likens the use of drones and other supposedly “precision” methods of killing suspected terrorist to treatment for cancer. This metaphor is as revealing as it is confusing, because it’s impossible to understand on whose body the cancer is located – America’s or the Muslim world’s. Specifically, he explains the use of drones is akin to using cancer surgery. “You need to attack the metastasising disease without destroying the surrounding tissue.”

But who’s tissue? Are the individuals marked for death a cancer on the American body, even when they’re over 12,000 kilometres away and there’s no evidence that they’re involved in planning an “immanent” attack on the US? Or is the body the body of Islam, of the Muslim world, in which case, in good Orientalist fashion, Brennan is declaring that the Muslim world is deeply sick and only the US has the ability and the tools to cure it by surgically removing (soon enough, this will be done with lasers, just like in a doctor’s office!) any individual or groups of cells deemed a threat to the larger social and political body.

It’s hard not to think of Hannah Arendt’s idea of the banality of evil here, when reading through the memos and speeches and other attempts to bureaucratise the decision and execution of death sentences on what are as if not more often than not unknown people whose actual threat to the larger “body” is impossible to gauge at the time of their increasingly remote-controlled killing. As a recent Daily Kos blog post reminds us, Arendt believed that the ability of large governing systems to perpetrate and perpetuate systematic evil depends not on the evil of the “doers”, bur rather on an “extraordinary shallowness” of officials at all levels of power, one which reflects an even deeper-seated “curious, quite authentic inability to think”.

But there’s a problem with such a dismissive analysis. Perhaps this description would fit former President Bush and his administration, which famously disdained the “reality based community” in favour of creating fantasy versions that suited their own ideological and power narratives. But is President Obama really that shallow? Can he be said to possess an “inability to think”? Such an accusation is hardly plausible. Similarly, Brennan is being routinely described as having a “subtle” knowledge of the Muslim world, with the CIA more broadly having an “intimate” knowledge of the region that allows it to “minimise” collateral damage to civilians.

In other words, Brennan knows the natives and knows how to project and protect American power with just enough violence to keep the system functioning while still being able to claim fidelity to the very ideals and principles that are being most desperately violated. And because he knows them, and because he’s a good American, he will use this knowledge only to take out the “bag guys” (as he puts it), even if they happen to be American citizens and/or their children, as happened with the killing of al-Qaeda ideologue Anwa al-Awlaki and his son by US drones in 2011.

In taking on this hard and thankless task, and having the strength and moral fibre to see it through, and by draping his actions in the framework of legality – even if we are not allowed to know how that legality is defined and that legality violates other legal principles – Brennan is, according to the spinmasters now being deployed in advance of his confirmation hearings, actually doing more to “restrain the Agency” and advance civil rights, than most anyone else in the Administration.

The worst part about this claim is that it just might be true, which says more about how far President Obama has moved from the rhetoric and discourse that first won him he Presidency, than about any genuine commitment to democracy and the rule of law by his presumed CIA Director. Either way, no matter how talented Brennan is with a scalpel, without a long-term change in US policy away from supporting terroristic regimes and towards supporting real democracy, all the surgery in the world won’t save the patient, whether in Washington or in the badlands of the Arabian Peninsula, North Africa or Afghanistan.

Mark LeVine is professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine and distinguished visiting professor at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden and the author of the forthcoming book about the revolutions in the Arab world, The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh. His book, Heavy Metal Islam, which focused on ‘rock and resistance and the struggle for soul’ in the evolving music scene of the Middle East and North Africa, was published in 2008.