The Playbook and the Lethal Bureaucrat: John Brennan and the creation of a ‘Permanent War’

In the second of their reports on the Obama administrations institutionalization of targeted killings across the planet, The Washington Post’s Karen DeYoung profiles John Brennan, Obama’s highly influential counterterrorism czar. She writes that Brennan’s ‘just war’ legacy will far outlast his time in the White House, and that is  precisely the point–to create a bureaucratic procedure known as the ‘playbook’ that will anchor a ‘permanent war’ in the beating heart of U.S. government.

Described as a ‘burly’ and ‘stern’ 25-year CIA veteran, Brennan, 57, is the ‘architect’ that has transformed counterterrorism from a conventional, ground-intensive fight in Afghanistan, to a ‘high-tech’, drone-intensive program of targeted killings. What was previously a disparate and diffuse set of tactics run by the Obama administration, including Special Forces, military and economic aid, and drone strikes, has being centralized in the White House with John Brennan at the core.

Brennan’s ‘playbook’ lays out the administration’s procedures for the targeted killings against al-Qaeda and its affiliates (this latter term is ambiguous and covers individuals and groups across East and North Africa). It also covers the selection of targets under the ‘disposition matrix’, and the legal authorities that the administration believes sanctions its actions in Pakistan and beyond. In his words from an interview the end of August “What we’re trying to do right now is to have a set of standards, a set of criteria, and have a decision-making process that will govern our counterterrorism actions — we’re talking about direct action, lethal action — so that irrespective of the venue where they’re taking place, we have a high confidence that they’re being done for the right reasons in the right way” 

Brennan, the son of Irish immigrants in New Jersey, wields enormous influence in the White House: he has tried to rest control of the CIA’s authority to strike targets in Pakistan (and house the program in the military), and he alone takes recommendations for drone attacks in Somalia and Yemen to the President. But Brennan is unelected and not held responsible by Congress–something that does not sit well with his critics, who charge that the centralization of power in a single man is a dangerous, anti-democratic force, and one made all-the-more troubling by the secrecy that defines current counter-terrorism policy. Michael E. Leiter, who headed the National Counterterrorism Center until mid-2011, remarked that Brennan does not focus on the ‘root causes’ of terrorism, seeing that as outside the purview of his job.

The rest of the article includes information on why Brennan believes getting ‘ahead of the curve’ in Yemen is crucial. “There are aspects of the Yemen program that I think are a true model of what I think the U.S. counterterrorism community should be doing” as it tracks down al-Qaeda affiliates.

As targets move to different locations, and new threats “to U.S. interests and to U.S. persons and property” are identified in Africa and elsewhere, Brennan described a step-by-step program of escalation. “First and foremost, I would want to work through local authorities and see whether or not we can provide them the intelligence, and maybe even give them some enhanced capability, to take action to bring that person to justice,” he said.

For those governments that are “unwilling or unable” to act, he said, “then we have an obligation as a government to protect our people, and if we need then to take action ourselves . . . we look at what those options are as well.”

Of the intelligence officials interviewed, some remarked that Brennan envisages a future where the CIA is removed from the clandestine kill-chain, and the process will become more transparent under Defense Department rules. Said Brennan: “I think the president always needs the ability to do things under his chief executive powers and authorities, to include covert action.” But, he added, “I think the rule should be that if we’re going to take actions overseas that result in the deaths of people, the United States should take responsibility for that.”

And yet, with a covert ‘playbook’, a secret ‘Disposition Matrix’ and a paramilitarized CIA, it is unlikely that targeted killings will ever see the light of transparency critics crave. In fact, under the ‘Obama doctrine’, the trend has been moving exponentially towards cementing the logic of ‘Terror Tuesdays’ (which itself is by no means a historical anomaly); not disassembling it.

In essence, Brennan has laid down the blueprint for a permanent war that is able to absorb either Democratic or Republican administrations; it matters little to the playbook.

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6 Responses to The Playbook and the Lethal Bureaucrat: John Brennan and the creation of a ‘Permanent War’

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