A reader writes:
You are right that the issues surrounding the Brennan nomination in 2013 are different from those of 2009. Then the question was extraordinary renditions and torture. Brennan can by no stretch of the imagination be considered an architect of those programs. On the other hand, he was a qualified defender of both, and he was likely to work hard to obstruct exposing what happened as well as demands for accountability. This he did in the White House even more effectively than he could have done at Langley.
Now the major question is the reorientation of the CIA into an organization that is essentially paramilitary, with the drone program being the "tip of the spear." Brennan more than any single figure has pushed along this metamorphosis of the agency and his role. His appointment provides the best opportunity so far to challenge and discuss the unchallenged and undiscussed assumptions behind the stealth make-over of the CIA.
There is entirely too much of a hurry to get into the weeds of hot-botton issues like Al-Awlaki and the civil rights dimension, which is emotional to civil libertarians, but also rather a rare matter. There is not enough willingness to look at the big picture of a militarized CIA that lacked the discipline of military doctrine and rules.
Basically, I think that the planners got the picture right in the National Security Act of 1947–they said the CIA should be an intelligence gathering organization with only very limited paramilitary functions in the areas of self-protection and training. Their guidelines were rigorously maintained until 2002, and then the picture went off the tracks. John Brennan is a major reason why. Confirming him means acknowledging a militarized CIA.
This is not, in my mind, an impossible outcome, but it is also not a decision to be taken without a compelling public presentation of the need for changing the nature of the agency. Aside from this we have Brennan's gabbiness with reporters–his embarrassing interview with the Washington Times that touched off the Al-Awlaki controversy–completely unnecessarily, in my view. His ridiculous mangling of the account of UBL's death. His penchant for chatting with his friends in the press corps to talk up the pro-active nature of Obama in the area of drone warfare, etc.
A smart DCI is far tighter in dealing with the press, and not so clumsy. The GOP will have at him over all of this, and I think they have plenty of legitimate points to score–though not likely anything that will take down his nomination. As for Klaidman, I agree his reporting on this subject is extremely important. On the other hand, he misunderstands much of the criticism (or rather, he understands the ACLU's critiques to be the total of the criticism, he misses the critical perspective of military leaders schooled in the traditional NSA analysis). He also makes no bones about the fact that he is writing as an advocate for Brennan, just as previously he wrote as an advocate for Holder.
That's fine, but you have to recognize it in weighing what he has written. Just consider this factor: if the drone war that Brennan oversaw in Pakistan results in this new nuclear power, a former leading non-NATO ally of the United States, becoming an enemy of the United States–then who can possibly say it was a success? It would then have to be reckoned one of the major tactical errors of the war on terror. But Brennan systematically fails to factor in this broader picture.
(Photo: John Brennan listens during an event in the East Room of the White House on January 7, 2013 in Washington. By Brendan Smialowski/Getty.)