This story is over 5 years old

How America's New Top Soldier and Spy Will Define the Drone War

Nominating Chuck Hagel and John O. Brennan as defense secretary and CIA chief, respectively, represents a somewhat controversial re-imagining of the US national security team's expanding drone wars.

by Brian Anderson
Jan 8 2013, 5:05pm

John O. Brennan, Obama's pick to head up the CIA, is droning on, but watching his words (via)

Early this morning, eight Pakistani militants were reportedly killed in the latest unmanned aerial attack. It's another week under the watch of American hunter-killer drones. 

Here Stateside, it's a week of skin shedding for the Obama Cabinet. The president, fresh off holiday in Hawaii, is back to the office and poised to firm up a new ring of advisers to kick off his second and final term. And first thing's first: Who will oversee American drone programs, be they for spying or killing, at home and abroad?

Monday's nominations of Chuck Hagel and John O. Brennan as secretary of defense and CIA chief, respectively, not only represent a somewhat controversial re-imagining of the US's national security team, one that'll helm shadowy blasts of brute force "with minimal troop and logistics footprints" as it bookends Afghanistan. If confirmed, the picks could well prove a boon to the country's expanding and hotly contested drone wars. American unmanned aerial campaigns continue to ramp up as more traditional ground ops go the way of the bayonet. And being two-pronged, with the Pentagon waging a spy- and kill drone campaign that's more "public" than that being carried out by the CIA, America's rapidly-evolving robot wars have Hagel and Brennan's impending oversight positioned to solidify Obama's legacy as one steeped in all the moral, ethical, and legal quandaries marking the cold, autonomous technology, if it wasn't already.


The Brennan pick, above all, is as much symbolic as it is tacticly precedent-setting. Never mind that the guy was complicit in Bush-era torture escapades, or that his first gig within the spy agency came after responding to a classified ad in the New York Times.

As Obama's top counterterrorism adviser, Brennan, a 25-year CIA stalwart who's fluent in Arabic, has held ultimate sway over those secret guidelines that greenlight both CIA and military drone strikes throughout the Middle East, Horn of Africa and elsewhere--strikes like those that took out the cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and his 16-year-old son, both American citizens, in Yemen in 2012.

Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, an American citizen and son of radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, also US-born, was killed in a drone strike in Yemen in 2012 two weeks after his father met the same fate (via)

We're at the point, now, that former top Pentagon brass are warning that drones are "hated on a visceral level, even by people who've never seen one or the effects of one." But Brennan has defended the legality of these sorts of strikes through and through, and has gone so far as to say that, to date, zero civilian deaths have resulted from weaponized drone strikes. So to see him getting the nod to officially manage the so-called "disposition matrix," that compendium of intelligence on terror suspects and the avenues through which they can be offed (or as is far less often the case, captured) suggests that Obama, no longer under any 11th-hour crush, is casting the proverbial drone rulebook, both in stone and spirit.

What's more, prior to returning to Langley Air Base, as Danger Room notes, Brennan, now with the president's "complete trust," will have to reveal his CIA vision to the Senate intelligence committee. It could be then that maybe, just maybe, he'll have no other option but to somehow open up on what to this point has been largely the stuff of conjecture and speculation.


If he does--and if I had to hazard the guess, he will--he and his boss will likely continue invoking the same state secrets privilege that's kept the drape over the architecture all along.

This is one of the bigger problems with the drone wars--they're mired in a confounding public discourse that swings wildly from egg-shell-cautious remarks to something like chest-beating, all filtered through varying screens of hyper-vaguery. Much of the criticisms lobbed at both arms of the American drone effort have had to with what the administration has and has not said about what it's done--and increasingly, what it says and refuses to say about what it's currently up to, like dropping Hellfire missiles this morning on a bunch of unsuspecting humans who may or may not have simply cast the mere "signature" of a group of bad guys plotting a shit storm.

Hagel, a two-term maverick Republican senator from Nebraska, has been noticeably absent in discussions surrounding the controversial programs. (That could start to change.) Brennan, by contrast, has been a vocal, albeit predictably obtuse, champion of them. In fact, he was the very first official within the Obama administration to offer public remarks on--indeed, to acknowledge the existence of--the top-secret program whereby suspected terrorists are tracked and terminated.

Here he is at a 2011 speech (these aren't those inaugural remarks, but no matter) at a joint Harvard Law-Brookings conference. Does the CIA have a drone program?, one audience member asks during a Q&A . Brennan's answer, which comes at around the 52:30 mark, is worth watching.

"Covert actions, as you know, are designed to be covert," he responded. "If the agency did have such a program," he continued, smirking slightly over stifled crowd chortles, "I'm sure it'd be done with the utmost care, precision, conformance with the law and our values--if such a program existed."

Which of course it does. And that's the rub: The administration will still neither "confirm nor deny" the existence of a deadly drone program. At the same time, you hear many critics arguing, quite rightly, that enough official, on-record comments about the administration's dronings on have eked out to the press from within the administration to completely undercut the idea that this is all just one big chimera, or something. 

But all cheeky dodging aside, Brennan's reticence is emblematic of the sort of rhetorical smoke-bombing will see moving foward, which now have another precedent working in its favor. Rebuffing a joint ACLU-New York Times Freedom of Information Act request seeking the legal memo used to justify the al-Awlaki strikes, a New York judge recently ruled that "it lies beyond the power of this court to conclude that a document has been improperly classified."


Hagel has famously said that he's a senator from Nebraska, not Israel. Don't let that fool you--while some Republicans question his allegiance to the Jewish state, he still voted for nearly $40 million in aid to the US ally during his tenure as a senior senator with the Foreign Relations committee. And besides, Obama doesn't seem to be all that concerned about folks pinning Hagel, a Purple Heart-decorated Vietnam vet, as "anti-Israel." 

Even still, that Hagel's resists fully kneejerking on policy toward Israel, which sits at the head of the world's table when it comes to researching and developing drones, maybe means two things. Hagel, for one thing, could well bring more drone funds back home, where various federal, state and local agenies looking to acquire drones and the FAA certification to fly them all already in a frenzy over using the technology for homeland security, search and recue, or any other sceanrios under the so-caled "dull-dirty-dangerous" drone rationale. This could mean big things for an already budding domestric drone-manufacturing industry, and the privacy concerns that cloud it. 

He also isn't keen on locking horn with Iran, for another, where, if we're to take the word of Iranian state media at least two unmanned US spy planes have recently been brought down through jamming. This could potentially usher an appreciable decline in the number of US spy drones that buzz over Tehran's disputed nuclear ambitions. 

Either way, let's not get ahead of ourselves. Hagel and Brennan have yet to take up their offers. But one thing's for sure: Until they do--even after they do--the grim reality is that drones are now the symbol par excellance of doing away with the entire notion of capturing and torturing terrorists. Now, they're just pulverized directly. Done and dusted--drones, it seems, are inching dangerously close to becoming Obama's torture. All in a week's work. 

Top: Obama, Hagel, and Brennan (via)

Reach Brian at @thebanderson