Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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What to Expect from Brennan’s Confirmation Hearing

by Micah Zenko
January 8, 2013

Then-U.S. Army general David Petraeus at an event in the East Room of the White House (Larry Downing/Courtesy Reuters). Then-U.S. Army general David Petraeus at an event in the East Room of the White House (Larry Downing/Courtesy Reuters).


Several pundits have called for the confirmation hearing on John Brennan’s nomination to become the director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to be used as the opportunity to debate the vast expansion of targeted killings under President Obama. From his position as the senior White House advisor to the president on all counterterrorism and intelligence issues, Brennan could clarify and answer many of the moral, legal, and operational questions regarding U.S. drone strikes.

Do not hold your breath. The hearings will be run by Senator Diane Feinstein, who will remain chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Despite leaking information regarding supposedly covert drone strikes in Pakistan, she strongly endorses targeted killings and, more generally, executive branch secrecy. She will assuredly place strict limits on what is asked and answered about drones in open session. Although drones and targeted killings were never raised in the confirmation hearings for previous CIA directors Michael Hayden or Leon Panetta, they did when David Petraeus testified in June 2011. See below for the brief exchange between Senator Roy Blunt and Petraeus (where you read “(CROSSTALK)” that is Feinstein trying to interrupt the discussion.) Do not expect much more from John Brennan’s confirmation hearing.

BLUNT: I want to talk a little bit about drones for a minute and the use of — use of drones. As I told you in my office a couple of days ago, I’m very supportive of the decisions the president made regarding Abbottabad. And one of the — one of the results of that decision was the — well, I — I think we can talk about what I want to talk about here.

PETRAEUS: I think generically…

BLUNT: No, that’s…


PETRAEUS: And I think we had the conversation…


BLUNT: Yeah, yeah, the only thing I was going to say about that was, we were able to leave with information in addition to the principal goal, which was justice for Osama bin Laden. And what I was going to ask you in a general context was, what kind of evaluation should go into that decision of how much information might be there, whether you use a drone or not, or whether you make the decision to try to capture the information, as well as eliminate the individual?

PETRAEUS: Well, thanks, Senator. As we discussed, in fact, our preference in many of our targeted operations — again, speaking now for the military, but it has applications more broadly — is to capture individuals so that you can, indeed, interrogate them, so that you can develop knowledge about the organizations they’re a part of, so that you can build, if you will, the link diagrams, the architectural chart of these organizations, understand the hierarchy, and generally continue to pull the string in, as you develop an evermore granular and nuanced understanding of these organizations that we are seeking to combat.

There are, however, occasions where we cannot, for a variety of different reasons, carry out that kind of operation. And in such cases, then, obviously, kinetic activity is a course of action, whether by drones or other platforms, for that matter, or other kinetic elements. And so that does provide an option to us, other than, again, where you cannot carry out a capture operation.

I would note that the experience of the military with unmanned aerial vehicles is that the precision is quite impressive, that there is a very low incidence of civilian casualties in the course of such operations. The warheads, actually, tend — in many cases, they’re as small as a Hellfire, of course, so these are not large munitions.

And as a result, I think, again, the precision is really quite impressive. And it is constantly growing with the proliferation of various platforms that enable us to have the kind of observation and understanding of the targets before they’re attacked.

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