Embracing the Legacy of Torture

AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

Demonstrators protest the White House's nomination of Deputy National Security Adviser for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism John Brennan to head the CIA on Monday, January 7, 2013.

Less than a month after Barack Obama was elected in 2008, John Brennan withdrew himself from consideration for head of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) because of opposition from liberals, which centered on his role as chief of staff to CIA director George Tenet when the Bush administration's arbitrary detention and torture programs were being developed. It is particularly depressing, then, that Obama has done as a safely re-elected incumbent what he felt he could not do in his first term: Nominate Brennan as head of the CIA. The fact that Brennan has been nominated despite his support for some of the worst abuses of the post-9/11 security state demonstrates the appalling extent to which many of these practices have become institutionalized, as well as the political weakness of defenders of civil liberties.

To understand why Brennan should not even be considered as an appropriate choice to head the CIA by a Democratic president, one can start with a PBS Newshour debate about the Bush administration's policy of extraordinary rendition—that is, detaining suspected terrorists and delivering them to other countries without due process. Brennan strongly defended the practice:

I think it's an absolutely vital tool. I have been intimately familiar now over the past decade with the cases of rendition that the U.S. Government has been involved in. And I can say without a doubt that it has been very successful as far as producing intelligence that has saved lives.

Despite Brennan's assurance that the government would carefully supervise the process to ensure against abuses, however, the extraordinary-rendition program was a human rights catastrophe and of dubious value in combating terrorist threats. As Jane Mayer of The New Yorker wrote in her book, The Dark Side, "The extraordinary rendition program produced a file of confessions from prisoners claiming to have suffered unimaginable torment." Moreover, much of the intelligence gathered from what Brennan asserted as a "vital program" proved to be "demonstrably false."

The arbitrary detention and torture of legitimate suspects is bad enough, but it's even worse than that. The lack of due process in the extraordinary-rendition program Brennan defended inevitably led to the rendition and torture of people who were clearly innocent. One of the most egregious examples of this is Maher Arar, the Canadian engineer who was detained by the CIA without being charged at JFK airport and rendered to Syria. Predictably, Arar was held and tortured for nearly a year in one of Syria's worst prisons. And, as will tend to happen when people can be indefinitely detained at the unchecked whim of the executive branch, he was also entirely innocent. We do not need a director of the CIA who defended a program that was this disastrous on every level.

Brennan's defense of the Bush administration's extraordinary-rendition program should in itself be disqualifying. But as Glenn Greenwald and Alex Seitz-Wald at Salon have documented, it is not the only disturbing element of Brennan's record. He has also defended the torture practices euphemistically called "enhanced interrogation" in an interview for CBS News. 

As the Obama administration's Deputy National Security Advisor, Brennan is also a key architect of the administration’s problematic drone policy. His implausible and ultimately false assertions that drone strikes have not killed any civilians in Pakistan is not a good sign that the costs of the drone program will be fully taken into account. Brennan's equally implausible assertion that there is "little evidence that these actions are generating widespread anti-American sentiment" similarly suggests that the drone program will continue without any kind of careful evaluation of its human or foreign-policy costs. Given that the power to order extrajudicial killings is nearly unchecked, this apparently skewed cost/benefit analysis sends a worrying sign about the Obama administration’s military policy going forward.

I do not mean to suggest that the nomination of Brennan means that there are no differences between the Bush and Obama administrations on civil liberties. Obama did ban torture and extraordinary rendition by executive order upon taking office, and that matters. Where Obama has failed, however, is in creating the institutional incentives that will inhibit torture on the part of future administrations. His failure to prosecute even the most egregious instances of torture under the previous administration sends an unmistakable message that torturers can expect not to be held accountable. Nor has the administration (or the Democratic leadership in Congress) shown any interest in hearings that would at least shine a public light on post -9/11 security abuses. The Brennan nomination fits in all too well with this pattern of denying accountability. One would think that at a minimum being a defender of arbitrary detention and torture would exclude someone from consideration from a job as important as head of the CIA.

Sadly, the nomination of John Brennan probably does not signal any significant changes in policy; it is but another hum-drum example of the Beltway's increasingly debased sense of accountability. A consensual affair may cost a prominent public official his or her job and trigger a major investigation, privacy be damned. But abusing human rights has no consequence.

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