Friday, January 11, 2013

John Brennan: The New Normal

By William Fisher

I remember very clearly President Obama’s second full day in office in 2009, when he signed the executive order calling for the closure of the detention camp at the United States Naval Station at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba,

The excitement was palpable. It was a huge first step toward the ending of what the New York Times called “the grim emblem of President George W. Bush’s lawless policies of torture and detention.”

Those policies were our response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11. At home, “middle-Eastern-looking men” were swept up and jailed with no charges and no access to lawyers. Abroad, in a dozen countries, “suspected terrorists” were tagged ‘the worst of the worst’, captured or kidnapped and shipped to GITMO. “High value suspects” were disappeared to a network of secret overseas prisons run by the CIA, where they were held incommunicado and subjected to so-called “enhanced interrogation” techniques, i.e. waterboarding and other forms of torture.

The administration of George W. Bush found a seemingly endless trove of abuses. The abused found the courthouse doors locked. By invoking the so- called State Secrets Privilege, the government found a way to kill lawsuits brought by alleged victims of Bush’s anti-terrorism campaign. To date, not a single plaintiff in any of these lawsuits has had his day in a U.S. court.

Congress, too, did its part. It passed the USA Patriot Act, giving the government a wide range of new legal tools to use against those the government suspected of providing support to terrorist organizations. Secretly, President Bush authorized U.S. intelligence agencies to carry out ongoing surveillance of phone calls and emails originating in the U.S.

The effect was to create a second-tier justice system for Muslims only.

Now, with Obama in the White House, our country would pull itself out of its historic train wreck and back on the rails of law and justice. The world would once again respect America for its confidence in the rule of law.

Well, guess what happened to American civil liberties as we moved from Bush to Obama?

Things got worse.

First, those courageous men and women we elect to represent us in Congress decided that if the Obama Administration was allowed to bring Guantanamo prisoners to Federal Court in New York for trial, the city would be overrun with terrorists eating at McDonald’s or shopping at The Mall. Completely overlooked by our brave Representatives is the fact that dozens of men have been tried, convicted and sentenced as terrorists at that exact court in lower Manhattan.

No alleged victim of government counter-terror programs has yet to see his lawsuit survive.
A second tier of justice has been fashioned by those charged with providing material support to terrorists. So bizarre has this become that an organization that has been trying to teach peaceful reconciliation techniques to Iraqi Kurds was convicted of providing material support to terrorists.

And today, the use of drone unmanned aircraft has been dramatically expanded. Targets may be citizens of anywhere or nowhere, including the U.S. Civilian deaths from drone strikes are categorized as collateral damage. A drone kill list has been put together for targeted assassinations. John Brennan runs this program.

Asked why no one was being held accountable for abuses committed by the U.S., Obama said he would rather look forward than backward and from that point on, we all knew that he (as they like to say in Washington) had doubled-down on a very bad bet.

What does all this have to do with John Brennan? Back in 2008, before Obama had taken office, the scuttlebutt around Washington was that Brennan was Obama’s choice to run the CIA.

As Glenn Greenwald noted in The Guardian, the pushback in 2008 “centered around the fact that Brennan, as a Bush-era CIA official, had expressly endorsed Bush's programs of torture, [with the exception of 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, Greenwald writes, Brennan withdrew his name from consideration, issuing a bitter letter blaming ‘strong criticism in some quarters prompted by [his] previous service with the’ CIA.”

Obama then appointed him as his top counter-terrorism adviser, the job he has now. That job does not require Senate confirmation.

The point is that through the years of the Bush Administration and the first term of the Obama Administration, John Brennan was the White House ringmaster for the so-called war on terror. Today, his influence is even greater, since he is believed to be in charge of the drone “kill list” – identifying those slated for assassination.

And yet, the vast preponderance of Congressional and press comment on these two nominations has centered, not on Brennan, but on Chuck Hegel, the former Republican Senator, who is said by some to be anti-Israel, even anti-Semitic, principally because of his reference to “the Jewish lobby.”

Israelis must find this amusing. “Jewish lobby” is a phrase frequently used by the lobby itself. And the words used by the U.S. press to describe Hegel’s attitudes toward Israel must seem to the Israelis and their American Diaspora as children’s games. Israelis say much worse things about other Israelis than non-Israelis would ever dream of saying. But most of the U.S. Congress, perpetually running for reelection and running after campaign contributions, would likely be worried into silence by fear of retaliation.

So the paradox is that the political environment that was so hostile for Brennan in 2008, now makes him a valued defender of the Republic, while a far more practical defender takes all the heat.

Those of us who take this view are not naïve. We understand that intelligence agencies get involved in the darkest side of the world community. We understand that some secrets need to remain secret. But we also believe that “state secrets protected in the name of national security are the easiest to hide and hardest to question.
The ACLU believes that the Senate should not proceed with John Brennan's nomination to head the CIA "until it assesses the legality of his actions in past leadership positions in the CIA during the early years of the George W. Bush administration and in his current role in the ongoing targeted killing program".

But, unfortunately, that would not be an assessment of John Brennan. It would be an assessment of the civil rights and civil liberties records of two presidents. And in these fields, both men would have been found to be abject failures.