Drones at the forefront of the Brennan hearing

An MQ-1B Predator from the 46th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron takes off from Balad Air Base in Iraq, in this file photograph taken on 12 June 2008 One study estimates as many as 3,200 have been killed by drone attacks in Pakistan alone

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Thursday's Senate confirmation hearing will be, in popular mythology at least, a brief moment when light flashes into the darkness.

John Brennan hopes to make his way from his windowless office (bunker, if you like a bit of drama) in the White House where he is President Barack Obama's counter-terrorism chief to Langley, in the state of Virginia, where he hopes to occupy the director's office in the CIA.

He will be at home in Langley: Mr Brennan spent 25 of his 57 years working for the Agency. He is an Arabist, was station chief in Saudi Arabia in the 90s and chief of staff to Director George Tenet in the years after 9/11.

After time in the private sector during president George W Bush's second term, he was tipped to be Mr Obama's nominee to lead the CIA in 2009.

But his time with Mr Tenet, and the CIA's involvement in what the administration called "enhanced interrogation" but what much of the rest of world saw as torture, put an end to that.

Instead he has laboured in the shadows in the White House, hugely influential, as a president who picked up a Nobel Peace Prize on pretty much his first day in office has expanded the programme of drone-killing with an aggression that has surprised friends and enemies alike.

Drones in the spotlight

It is that drone programme, acknowledged by the US government but never detailed, that will fall under the Senate spotlight. And it will be Mr Brennan's role in the expansion and running of it that will be up for examination.

The hearing comes as the use of unmanned aerial combat vehicles to winnow the ranks of America's enemies is attracting unprecedented domestic attention.

On Tuesday came the leak to NBC News of the justice department's white paper giving its legal justification for killing an American citizen.

It is widely believed to be the briefing paper given to members of Congress in the light of the drone-killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, a US citizen killed in Yemen in September 2011.

On Wednesday came the news - apparently long-known to some parts of the US media, who chose not share it - that the US is operating a drone base out of Saudi Arabia.

And drones are on the front page of the magazines Time and New York Review of Books.

Much of America's drone operation is hidden from view, carried out by the CIA and thus away from public gaze and accountability.

The New America Foundation estimates that between 1,953 and 3,279 have been killed by drone attacks in Pakistan alone, of whom roughly one in 10 were civilians.

Mr Brennan is believed to have been at the heart of trying to formalise the rules of this new war through the creation of a "playbook": a set of criteria and methods for how decisions of life and death should be made.

The organisation he hopes to lead will not, however, be bound by the playbook.

Unanswered questions

"Why not?" asks Georgetown University Professor of Law David Cole, in the New York Review of Books.

How, he asks, does the administration decide whether or not capturing an enemy (rather than killing them) is feasible? What are the criteria for targeted killing? Just how many civilians have been killed?

The questions roll on.

How much we will learn from the Senate hearing is difficult to guess. Senators have received many confidential briefings.

They are often shy of talking about national security matters. The hearings themselves can descend swiftly into publicity seeking and point scoring, rather than probing questioning.

In a speech last year, Mr Brennan acknowledged that many questions have yet to be answered about the drone programme - questions much like the ones posed by Mr Cole.

But he said that in amongst the struggle over the moral questions thrown up by the drone programme, he was certain about one thing:

"We are at war. We are at war against a terrorist organisation called al-Qaeda that has brutally murdered thousands of Americans… with the help of targeted strikes, we have turned al-Qaeda into a shadow of what it once was. They are on the road to destruction."

There are many questions to be asked as Mr Brennan makes his way from one dark corner of the administration to another. But for most Americans, Mr Brennan's words sum up all they want to know about the war being played out in the shadows.

Jonny Dymond Article written by Jonny Dymond Jonny Dymond Washington correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    dimbry (45),

    “@Chryses; Are you a "civilian", too? Let's just leave ironic quote marks well away from that word, shall we?”

    Ah, you missed it! I was quoting MilwaukeeRay @38. The “ironic” quotes were his. Ironic, eh?

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    @38; Terrorism goes back a lot further than 9/11. And it does NOT and has NEVER meant that the word 'civilian' has lost its meaning, not in the context of war, not under international law, period.

    Not a word of what you say stands up under even the slightest amount scrutiny. Tactics like this only breed escalation. Look up the history of COIN, see where it invariably leads:


  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    If Brennan is Truthful he will not get the job,and Senate Ctee knows that.A display in Natl Hypocrisy for local consumption.
    People need to wrap their heads around the fact CIA was formed specifically to Discredit anyone deemed Enemy of US by Any Means incl Fabrication.Nothing to do with Law & Order.
    My irk is with whipping up Hate to Defend our Way of Life.Unneccessary and most harmful to us.

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    12 Hours ago
    lordBanners (5),

    “Death count from US Drones is far higher,any male 16 or over is automatically deemed 'Enemy Combatant' even if in School Uniform …”

    Was exposed in a report covering Dead Women,Children and Youth in canoes going home from school in Honduras where US drones were not supposed to be.Minimising death count is as much US stgy as using Drones.

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    Drones are fantastic weapons and should be used far more widely to protect lives and reduce risk to coalition forces. When you are fighting against people who use terror as one of their main tools, these drones completely take away the ability of these lunatics to even have contact with civilized people, they will be killed before they get the chance.

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    @Chryses; Are you a "civilian", too? Let's just leave ironic quote marks well away from that word, shall we?

    The fact remains drone attacks cause massive civilian casualties, triply so when the policy is to bomb a place and then wait for ambulance and bystanders to gather before firing a second missile.

    Drone attacks are AQ's best recruiting tool, and do more long-term harm than short-term good.

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    It is sad when people justify “limited” civilian casualties for the “greater good”. There is no difference between the crimes committed by terrorism and the State. How could you condone the killing of a civilian. I cannot see how one can justify killing a terrorist without due process. It is strange how no one thinks about that important saying–innocent until proven guilty!

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    Continued...Sates which have the ability and the will to act upon such threats do not see drone strikes within their territory. Yemen, Somalia and especially Pakistan recieved strikes by not acting or by ineffectual actions. However, the terrorists should also shoulder some of the blame b/c they use civilian populaces as shields. Even in normal war the innocent pay a price, much higher than now.

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    dimbry (24),

    “According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism that 1 in 10-figure is wildly optimistic …”

    Civilian casualties during war are commonly greater than those of the opposing militaries.

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    MilwaukeeRay (38),

    “… All members of al-Queda are "civilians". …”


    “… Osama was a "civilian" …”


    “… The men who destroyed the World Trade Center were "civilians" …”


    “… The word is meaningless when fighting terrorists.”


  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    About collateral damage...Many civilians most likely do indeed get killed, however it must be remembered that this is a war without borders. The WORLD is now the battlefield and traditional military targets do not exist. The enemy operates from the shadows within the civilian population planning attacks. What to do then when a local gov is unable or unwilling to take action against such threats?

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    It is understandable to call for a meaningful process to authorize drone strikes in order to avoid abuses of power. However, to assume that those targeted who are associated with foreign terrorist entities should fall under the normal due process of law is ludicrous. A new framework indicating threat level posed based upon intel sources should define the required actions along with check/balances.

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    How strange to say that one in ten of the people killed by Drones were civilians. All members of al-Queda are "civilians". Osama was a "civilian". The men who destroyed the World Trade Center were "civilians". The word is meaningless when fighting terrorists.

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    Most of the drone strikes take place within Pakistan, a country of 180,000,000 people armed with nuclear weapons. Hardly a 'minor power'. The drone strikes are a violation of national sovereignty and shouldn't take place without UN approval. Just imagine if we'd been utilizing drone strikes in the Republic of Ireland to target IRA members, resulting in hundreds of Irish civilians being killed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    The use of Drone strikes is done on minor powers. The US is not using drone strikes on any major power. Drones arent going to be used that way,to much political blow back. Don't sensationalize the issue, a Major power drone striking another major power.This open the door to drone striking other minor powers. Russia striking Georgia, or China striking rebels or Tibetan separatists

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    @ 14.Open minded no agenda

    I disagree. The greatest weapon a person can have is the Will. We lose.

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    Drone attacks are EXTREMELY PRECISE. “Collateral damage” should seldom be an issue. Drone operators sit at screen, seeking targets - like playing video game, right? A family home is referred to as a “structure” or“building”.
    Operator: “Did I just kill a kid?”
    2cd Operator: “Guess so."

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    So when future Chinese or Russian drones start targetting any member of the US military, congressman, anyone who is unlucky enough to live in the same street as them, that´s ok then. For many people drone assassinations are ok as long as it is them not us and over there and not over here. Then what will Americans do ? Start WW3 ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    seems the main objection is that there's no chance of American loss of life when a drone is used. The same collateral damage is as likely if a piloted aircraft carries out a strike. If we accept that the miltary goals and intentions are sound (to destroy murderous religous nuts/oil) then all that matters is that good intelligence is used (as never sen with Islamofacists)

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    Its a simple decision for the US to use drone strikes against militants because it is not them who have to suffer the 'collateral damage'. Would love to hear the views of all if it were innocent Americans / Europeans dying in these drone attacks! You do not get rid of weeds by chopping off whats above the ground, but its the roots that need to be plucked out. Drone strikes are just useless!


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