5 Crucial Questions Senators Failed to Ask During Brennan Hearings

During John Brennan’s confirmation hearing for CIA director, the architect of Obama’s drone program unapologetically defended targeted assassinations—even of American citizens. Given his adamant defense of the program, there’s still a lot the America people deserve to know.

But the Senate Intelligence Committee failed us. Rather than asking the tough questions, senators battled Code Pink protestors, kissed a lot of ass, and even told a waterboarding joke

Several journalists and bloggers listed important questions for Mr. Brennan prior to his hearing. Most went unasked and unanswered. Here are some questions for Brennan that we still don’t have answers to:

1. Will You Please Recite the Fifth Amendment?

Brennan and Sen. Diane Feinstein engaged in a lengthy exchange over Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born cleric who was killed by way of drone strike in 2011. The U.S. citizen, accused of aiding and abetting Al Qaeda, did not get a chance to stand trial before the Obama administration pulled the trigger. Yet, Feinstein fed Brennan everything he needed to defend the administration’s complete disregard for due process, guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment. If al-Awkali was such a “bad guy,” as Feinstein repeated over and over, why couldn’t we indict him? Writer Jeremy Scahill put it best in a tweet: “The faux trial that Feinstein & Brennan gave Anwar Awlaki today (with no evidence) was the only trial they gave him--and it was posthumous.”  

2. Why Did the President Kill an American Teenager?

While we heard Anwar al-Awlaki’s name numerous times through the hearing, another drone target of the Obama administration didn’t get a single mention: al-Awlaki’s son, 16-year-old Abdulrahman al-Awlaki. The Denver-born teenager was killed in an airstrike two weeks after his father died. We know hardly anything about his death, and the administration has not been eager to give answers.

3. Are there ANY Qualifications for Authorizing Death Sentences?

Mr. Brennan described waterboarding as “reprehensible” and “something that should not be done,” but refused on multiple occasions to call it torture. Why? Because, as Brennan reminded us over and over, he is “not a lawyer.” While Senator Carl Levin, pressed him on torture, no one took the opportunity to question the drone architect on the broad language used to justify targeting U.S. citizens, as revealed by a leaked DOJ white paper this week. The memo made headlines. In particular, civil liberties advocates took issue with a section detailing how “informed, high-level officials” get to decide if a target poses “an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States.”

Blogger Marcy Wheeler notes the absurdity of Brennan appealing to legal ignorance to deflect on torture, while claiming the authority to give out death sentences: “In other words, according to the guy who has been acting as judge and jury for the last four years, the guy who has been acting as judge and jury is completely incompetent to act as judge and jury.”

4. Why did the Obama administration wait until election season to codify rules for assassinating people?

The New York Review of Books’ David Cole raised this excellent question before Brennan’s hearing took place. While committee members did grill Brennan on transparency with the drone program, we didn’t get a clear picture on why “Terror Tuesdays” went on for so long without some set rules. As Cole put it, “Don’t you think there should have been clear rules and fair procedures in place before the Obama administration ordered the killing of hundreds of human beings?” Furthermore, Cole adds that any rules that are adopted won’t apply to Pakistan.

5. Don't you see a problem with “signature strikes?”

Committee members failed to ask why the Obama administration should have the power to kill people under the doctrine of “signature strikes.” As the New York Times puts it:

Originally that term was used to suggest the specific ‘signature’ of a known high-level terrorist, such as his vehicle parked at a meeting place. But the word evolved to mean the “signature” of militants in general — for instance, young men toting arms in an area controlled by extremist groups.

In other words, Obama can order drone strikes on people who look suspicious in the wrong place at the wrong time. As The Nation’s George Zornick points out, the “vast majority” of drone targets aren’t senior-ranking Al Qaeda terrorists, but “low-level militants.”

Of course, this list could go on. As Brennan gets inevitably sworn in, Americans should keep these questions on their minds, and lawmakers need to make sure the new CIA Director is at least held accountable to the few answers they got from him yesterday.

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