CIA head nominee John Brennan’s hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee mirrors the average American’s ambiguous attitude toward torture. Brennan was chief of staff to Bush II’s CIA director and became deputy director of the CIA when it was running kidnapping and “rendition” programs. At the hearing, Brennan said that he privately expressed opposition to torture, such as waterboarding, but in his public comments he embraced and defended the use of torture. In the hearing, Brennan expressed a change of mind about torture after he said he read a long report put out by senators Diane Feinstein (D-CA) and Carl Levin (D-MI), which refuted claims that torture had elicted useful information. Wnen asked, however, if he believes in waterboarding as unlawful, Brennan refused to answer yes or no, making the argument that he is not a lawyer.
After Senator Mark Udall (D-CO) made a series of statements expressing his abhorrence of torture, he concluded by saying that the most important reason to oppose it is because it doesn’t produce useful information. Many Americans now nominally opposed to torture would probably change their minds if there was strong evidence that torture provides solid information about planned violence directed against U.S. interests or citizens. None of the prime legal underpinnings for prohibiting the use of torture: the Geneva Conventions, the War Crimes Act and the U.S Army Field Manual, make an exception based on usefulness of torture-induced information gained, nor does the U.S. State Department make such an exception when it cites other nations for being human rights abusers. If torture was deemed to be acceptable if it produced good results, then the investigation of very serious crimes would routinely involve the use of torture.
There were other oddities in the Brennan hearing which merit comment. A senator — I believe it was Rufus King (I-Maine) — proposed a FISA-like court, which would determine whether a targeted person should live or die. The current FISA court rubberstamps virtually every surveillance request brought to it and we should not support such rubberstamping of life or death decisions. A second oddity was the suggestion that all targeted persons should be given an opportunity to surrender. John Brennan replied that surrender is always an option, but given the prevalence of lethal drone strikes, there does not appear to be in place a mechanism that would make surrender a realistic option.
Another happening in the hearing that bothered me greatly was Senmator Feinstein’s attempt to paint acts of specific individuals as so evil that killing them summarily was a reasonable reaction. Brennan was reluctant to endorse Feinstein’s characterizations and he was even more uncomfortable when Feinstein used the word “hundreds” in referring to FBI preventions of “terrorist” plots. The magazine Mother Jones has probably done the most well-documented job of exposing the FBI’s mode of operation in “discovering” plots. The FBI has many undercover agents and contacts in Muslim communities, who report threatening or very disparaging remarks about the U.S. government. An undercover agent is then assigned to shadow the individual and/or infiltrate any suspiciously sinister-looking group to which the individual bslongs. The agent will fabricate a specific plot, entrap the individual or group into following the steps in the contrived plot, fail to supply the crucial material to carry out the plot and then make an arrest.
A component part of the plot is the recitation of a pledge to support al Qaeda and then use the recorded pledge as a linchpin to get a conviction in a forthcoming trial. The epitome in this sad saga of entrapment was the arrest of a group of men attending a Florida mosque and charging them with plotting to blow up the Sears Building in Chicago. The men were probably too impovished collectively to pay for explosives and “case” the building in Chicago and they had no specialized knowledge of explosives among them. Mother Jones describes how difficult it was to get anyone in the Florida group to properly recite the oath or pledge to al Qaeda.
Finally, the lawmakers’ prime focus in the hearing was to get the legal documents which set forth the Obama administration’s rationale for targeting U.S. citizens for death. Seemingly, if the documentation is deemed to be compelling enough, all opposition to kill lists goes away. The kill lists violate the bedrock principles of U.S. legal jurisprudence that anyone charged with a crime must know the nature of the charges against him/her and must have the right to face his/her accusers in a court of law. The Obama administration is engaged in bona fide, premeditated acts of first degree murder.