The senators drone on and on
February 8, 2013By Dick Polman
We might as well laugh about it, as Conan O'Brien did last night: "President Obama can order drone strikes on American citizens. So this is the last joke I will be doing."
Yep, drones are the new normal. CIA director-nominee John Brennan made this clear yesterday during his Senate confirmation hearing. He essentially said that the Obama White House would continue to target suspected bad guys (including American citizens) for remote-control assassination, free of oversight or due process niceties.
Brennan escaped unscathed at day's end without having enlightened us on the assassination criteria; we still don't now what constitutes an "imminent" threat, or what constitutes "membership" in a terrorist group. Granted, Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden told Brennan that it's wrong to give any president "unfettered power to kill an American without checks and balances." But senators on the Intelligence panel failed to pin Brennan down - in part because the drone program particulars remain classified, in part because the senators were too busy droning on and on and on about all manner of ancillary issues, such as the CIA's behavior during the Iraq war prelude in 2002.
Before the droning commenced, they did try to elicit a few specifics from Brennan. In written questions submitted prior to the hearing, they asked him: "How does the United States Government establish when the threat posed by such individuals and entities is sufficiently 'imminent' to justify the use of military force?"
Brennan wrote in response that imminence is "a highly fact-specific determination," and that it "incorporates considerations of the relevent window of opportunity to act, the possible harm that missing the window would cause to civilians, and the likelihood of heading off future disastrous attacks against the United States."
Well, that certainly cleared things up.
But wait...What's the definition of "likelihood?" Or "relevent window?" Can someone be targeted for instant incineration not because of an active plot but only if he's judged by the national security team to be a "future" threat? Apparently, yes. But how likely must that threat be?
The hunt for straight answers is hard. It would be easier to thumbtack Jell-o to a wall.
Brennan got off easy yesterday because neither party wanted to push too hard. Republican senators were fine with the drone program because Obama has essentially broadened what George W. Bush began. Democratic senators (including Wyden) eschewed confrontation because they don't want to mess with a Democratic White House, and because some of them (notably, Intelligence chairwoman Diane Feinstein) endorse the drones anyway.
Occasionally, someone would suggest that a scintilla of oversight might be desirable. Sen. Angus King, an independent, said: "Having the executive be the prosecutor, the judge, the jury and executioner all in one is very contrary to the traditions of this country. If you're planning a strike over a period of days, weeks, or months" - which seems likely, if someone is merely a potential future threat - "there is an opportunity to go to someone outside the executive branch," perhaps to a judge on a secret court, akin to the court that is empowered to sign off on domestic surveillance warrants. Even Feinstein said she liked the idea.
In response, Brennan said that a secret court would be "certainly worthy of consideration" - which is roughly akin to saying "the check is in the mail."
We'll probably never know the details. Brennan will pay no penalty for his opacity, and the senators will suffer no public backlash for insufficient vigilance, because, at least according to a recent ABC News-Washington Post poll, 83 percent of Americans favor the use of drones. On foreign soil, anyway.
Weighty issues, indeed - which is why I suppose some senators felt it was necessary to lighten things up. At one point, Republican Sen. Richard Burr said to Brennan: "I notice you're on your fourth glass of water, and I don't want to be accused of waterboarding you." Senatorial chuckles abounded.
Nothing like a little torture joke to lend levity to an official proceeding. Move over, Conan!
Speaking of the drone issue....I never ever envisioned the day when George W. Bush's chief speechwriter, Michael Gerson, would open one of his Washington Post columns by quoting and linking the likes of me.
And speaking of the current GOP identity crisis (yesterday's post), this cartoon frames the story nicely. I particularly endorse item #4.
Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1