Back in 2008, just after Barack Obama's victory in the US Presidential elections, questions were being asked about who would replace Michael Hayden as director of the Central Intelligence Agency in Obama's new administration. John O. Brennan, a favourite for the position, withdrew his candidacy amidst furious (though understandable) outcry from Democrats and liberal blogs about his involvement in Bush-era rendition programs, and his support of using “enhanced interrogation techniques” on suspected terrorists. Four years on, as Obama heads into his second term as President somewhat more gloomily, Brennan's name has resurfaced for the role to the sound of a lot less controversy. His withdrawal from consideration in 2008 was a victory for human rights and public engagement in White House administration, what is different in 2013? Does Brennan's nomination signal increasing public apathy? Or is it even a tacit endorsement of morally corrupt interrogation methods in the name of the perpetual “War on Terror”?

Brennan (left) and Obama (centre)Courtesy of AslanMedia via creativecommons

On the surface, it is easy to see why Brennan was the natural choice to take over as CIA director. In the late nineties and early noughties he held various high-ranking roles, including a two-year stint as deputy executive director of the CIA. In 2004 and 2005 Brennan worked as director of the National Counterintelligence Center, which had been created by President Bush in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks. He then moved into the private sector of the Intelligence Community before returning to the public sphere as Obama's chief counter-terrorism advisor in the run up to the 2008 elections. As such, he had a detailed and comprehensive understanding of the terror threat to the USA, and had forged a close relationship with Obama himself, as well as being well-respected within his field.

However, things are never quite so simple. In 2008 Brennan had not just been flippantly accused of using rendition and, to say the least, questionable interrogatory procedures against terror suspects; he had explicitly endorsed them. Rendition, which is the moving of suspects from American soil to countries with far less strict interrogation laws, and often dubious human rights records, was defended by Brennan as being more effective because it transferred suspects to their home countries where the authorities “have a longer history in terms of dealing with them, and [where] they have family members and others that they can bring in.” Threats to kill and rape one's family and friends are probably more pertinent when the interrogating officer is in the same city.  In a 2005 interview with Jim Lehrer, Brennan classed rendition as “an absolutely vital tool” in extracting information, and even said: “I have been intimately familiar...with cases of rendition”. All this and more prompted fierce opposition to his potential appointment as CIA director, especially considering Obama's supposed plans to reform the opaque and often legally questionable Bush-era policies with which Brennan was closely associated. However, even from the outset we perhaps should have doubted Obama's commitment to humanising America's rabid war on terror. Despite his signing in January 2009 of the order “Ensuring Lawful Interrogations”, and his (now broken) promise to close Guantanamo Bay within one year, Obama still appointed Brennan to the role of Deputy National Security Advisor, a role which wields as much influence as director of the CIA but which does not require Senate confirmation.

Since 2009, Brennan has used his influential role in the White House to expand the CIA's controversial drone program. The number of drone strikes in Pakistan has gone down since Bush left office (although there have still been 309 under Obama, more than one a week), but the focus for drones has now been turned to Yemen; there have been up to 52 drone strikes in Yemen under Obama and of course, implicitly, Brennan. Obama favours drone strikes as a military method because, like his rendition programs, they are more covert than Bush's ‘guns-blazing’ invasions, and thus supposedly alienate fewer people and are more accurate and effective than traditional missile strikes, resulting in less collateral damage. To address the first point, take note of that fact that in 2008, the Yemeni Al Qaeda branch had less than 200 recruits; in 2013 it has just under 1000 – hardly indicative of a less hostile population. However, in June 2011, Brennan reassured the public from within the walls of the White House with the extraordinary claim that there had not been a single civilian death as a result of these drone strikes, a claim corroborated by official CIA reports. Many independent agencies dispute this. A report from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism concluded that there had been 45 deaths from ten drone strikes in the year 2010-2011, and hundreds more in preceding years of the Obama administration, including 176 children. Care must be taken with such reports, which are often based on interviews with local tribesmen and Pakistani officials with their own agendas; in April 2012 the Pakistani parliament voted to end and authorisation for drone strikes – a vote which the US government resolutely ignored. Nevertheless, the CIA later revised its “no collateral damage” line to “no confirmed non-combatant deaths”. It was then revealed that any military-aged male in target zones is classed as a combatant, whether or not he is armed, thus countless young men can be killed without the CIA needing to admit to any civilian mortalities.

 This is not the only time Brennan has been deliberately misleading. As Obama's chief counter-terrorism advisor he was leader of the team that killed Osama Bin Laden in 2011. One would therefore expect him to have a detailed knowledge of the operation. Yet he was partly responsible for the media confusion in the immediate aftermath of Bin Laden's death, claiming that he had used his wife as a human shield – a story that was later rescinded. This is perhaps a small slight on a man with, regardless of any moral criticisms, an impressive counter-terrorism record. But what does counter-terrorism even mean in today's international landscape? What is the War on Terror? Brennan's inaccuracy in reporting Bin Laden's death reflects a wider problem systemic in American politics: the sensationalisation of terror. Bin Laden was not someone who needed Brennan's help in vilifying himself to the American public, but that seems to have been Brennan's aim in his characterisation of Bin Laden as the cowardly villain. The use of torture on terror suspects aids this cause. Descriptions and pictures of the horrific treatment of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib and other Black Sites littered around the world (some of which were proven to be falsified, many of which were not) are enough to make anyone's stomach turn; but there is a certain desensitisation that comes with repeated accounts of such suffering. In order for one human to torture another, the recipient must be dehumanised in order for the torturer to continue. The public does the same and there is an implicit assumption that someone must be guilty of something if they are in a position where they are being interrogated using “enhanced methods” by the American government; on some level the prisoner must deserve to be there. However, this is not necessarily the case. In 2004, the German citizen Khaled el-Masri was detained, flown to Afghanistan, and allegedly tortured for several months before being released on an Albanian hillside, when the American government realised they had confused him with the suspected terrorist Khaled al-Masri. In 2007 the US Supreme Court declined without comment to hear el-Masri's lawsuit against the US government; el-Masri has since been committed to a psychiatric institution.

 What is more, no concrete evidence has been produced for the effectiveness of torture as an interrogation technique. Information given under conditions of torture cannot be used in a court of law. Recently, many critics have lambasted Kathryn Bigelow's latest film, Zero Dark Thirty, on the grounds that it glorifies torture and implies that it actually provided useful information in capturing and killing Bin Laden. Even Brennan (who is a vocal opponent of water-boarding, but advocates other interrogation techniques such as extreme sensory deprivation, religious and physical humiliation, sleep deprivation...the list goes on) admitted in a 2003 case that “All these methods produced useful information, but there was also a lot that was bogus”. According to Jane Mayer in The New Yorker, one top CIA official estimated that ninety percent of information elicited from torture was unreliable.

 Worryingly, the American public does not seem to be taking much notice of these arguments; in 2007, 27 percent supported the use of torture against terror suspects, in 2012 the figure had risen to 41 percent. As the “War on Terror” continues, the American public become more and more desperate for its conclusion. But the war on terror is not a real war, by virtue of the fact that it has no tangible end point. In a speech last month at the Oxford Union, the outgoing Pentagon General Counsel Jeh Johnson said that “Peace must be regarded as the norm toward which the human race continually strives”. Although Johnson was arguing that “war” was thus an unnatural and finite state of affairs, he unwittingly revealed the reality of American foreign policy – ensuring the continuation of terror threats against the US. The Washington Post recently reported that there was a broad consensus in the Obama administration that we are only at the mid-point of the fight against “terror” (more specifically, Al Qaeda), which was launched twelve years ago. 2013 marks the eleventh anniversary of the opening of Guantanamo Bay and four years since Obama's broken promise to close it within a year. Even then, he was only planning to move it to Illinois. The detention of men without charge for years at a time, as well as drone strikes, and the atrocious behaviour of American soldiers and officials towards detainees and civilians can only incite anger in the young men of the Middle East. Many in Afghanistan see the US as the new Taliban.

All in all, the forecast does not look good for those who are still holding onto hope that Obama might bring the reform he promised to the USA's defence strategy. Even if he does in his second term intend to deliver on the broken pledges of his first, the mood of the American public has clearly changed. Brennan's appointment is this time round generating far less controversy as everyone seems to have adopted Obama's facile slogan, “look forwards, not back”. Or perhaps, more worryingly, they have given up on holding high-ranking officials accountable to the law. Let us remember that the reason the role is vacant is that the previous CIA director, General David Petraeus, was forced to resign because of an extramarital affair. Yet someone with links to torture, rendition and drone strikes does not seem to inspire the same level of outrage.

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