Pete Souza

U.S. News


The Drone Master: John Brennan and the New Americanism

“We should regain for ourselves the faith of our founding fathers in the dignity of man and bend every effort to see that the rights which they cherished are denied to none in our time.” – Willard B. Spalding, “Americanism,” The Phi Delta Kappan, Apr. 1946

Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), in questioning John Brennan, President Barack Obama’s nomination for the role of CIA director, showed the delicate foot tapping currently taking place in the Senate. The issue was, as ever, the program that is emblazoned on John Brennan like a conspicuous coat of arms. Yes, we are having a nice chat about drones and the handiwork of their operators, which we should expect if the questioner is the chairperson of the Senate Intelligence Committee. “One of the problems is, once the drone program is so public, and one American is caught up, people don’t know much about this one ‘American citizen’ – so called.”

Here, we have the first glaring concern about what the Committee, and the Obama administration, is up to. Feinstein might not know it, nor even the characteristically oblique Brennan, but Anwar al-Awlaki, who died in a drone strike in Yemen in 2011 was one such “so-called” American, having been born in New Mexico. As damnable as it might have been for either party, the constitutional clothing granted by that mere fact can’t be removed. That did not stop Feinstein pressing for a concerted disrobing, suggesting that she was dusting off an old form of negating “Americanism” to accommodate the drone wars.

Indeed, Feinstein persisted in using the qualified American category, showing the ease with which constitutional rights can become moveable features of the political landscape. If you are an “American so called” then you are entitled to be exterminated in an extra-judicial drone strike.

The only catch here was that if the man was bad news, his erasure should have been made more public as a policy. “When people hear ‘American,’” pressed Feinstein, “they think someone who’s upstanding. And this man was not upstanding by a long shot.”

This is the same person who has taken the line that she, along with her colleagues, will shed light on the shady nature of the drone program. “I have been calling for the public release of the administration’s legal analysis on the use of lethal force – particularly against U.S. citizens – for more than a year.”

A series of assumptions are being made here – what an “American” is, what such a vague term as “upstanding” might be, and what is done to disqualify the appellation. “They don’t know the incitement he has stirred up. I wonder if you could tell us a bit more about Mr. Awlaki and what he’s been doing.” Public disclosure is simply another way of tapping into a collective atavism. If you follow this line, tell the public the truth, and they will sanction broad executive power.

John Brennan didn’t disagree with the squalid line of questioning Feinstein was taking, affirming that al-Awlaki was not merely a “propagandist” but “involved in activities that were designed to kill innocent men, women and children, mostly Americans.” One’s resume, even as an American, might just get you killed on executive orders.

The hearings reveal the divided nature of the proceedings – or rather, divided only in the way due process is being dealt with. Those who question, and the one being questioned, are dancing a dangerous waltz. The assassination program being conducted by drones can’t be deemed an official one since it sails too close to the wind of legality in both American and international law. After all, if it becomes clear that not only Washington embraces the program, but does so against Americans, the security establishment will find itself in a juridical pickle.

The contradictory and even dangerous nature of the discussion can be gathered by the document obtained by Michael Isikoff of NBC and authored by the Department of Justice. The white paper itself is entitled “Lawfulness of a Lethal Operation Directed Against a U.S. citizen Who Is a Senior Operational Leader of Al-Qa’ida or An Associated Force.” The document rides the imperial line – no citizen, American or otherwise, is safe in any state, irrespective of whether the U.S. is engaged in hostilities with it. As Amy Davidson rightly notes in The New Yorker, this smacks of the legalese nonsense offered by John R. Stevenson in 1970 when, as a State Department legal advisor, he justified the Nixon administration’s unsanctioned move into Cambodia.

The Feinstein-Brennan encounter suggests with much viciousness that, even if the program were officially discussed with any seriousness, the idea of being “American” might well bifurcate. This is eerily reminiscent of the hair splitting conducted by President Truman’s Loyalty Review Board in sifting through the wheat and the chaff of American patriotism. You might be American, but some people were more American than others. But not even Truman deigned to embrace extra-judicial killings as a policy measure for the unwashed.

These sessions will reveal nothing other than the obvious: the drone program, praised by the current generation of U.S trigger pushers, is here to stay. If it kills more dangerous foreigners, with the odd “American” so qualified thrown into the death mix, all the better. Furthermore, the move of appointing Brennan is not merely an attempt to capitalise on the vulnerabilities of the United States of Amnesia. (The memories of the Bush administration, with the open justification of enhanced interrogation and illegal wars, seems far away.) It is designed to check the patriots – after all, Osama bin Laden was killed under Brennan’s direction, and the drone program, official or not, has added many a corpse to the bill of fare for counter-terrorism.

At the end of the day, no one wants to sound anti-patriotic. Far better, instead, to sound like a constitutionally challenged fool. As John Brennan himself explained, “None of those actions are to determine past guilt for those actions that they took. The decisions that they made are to take actions to prevent a future action – to protect American lives.” Therein lies the logic of extra-judicial murder, American or otherwise.