Initial Reaction to Brennan’s Speech
At least from the text, John Brennan seems to have positioned the speech that he delivered yesterday at the Wilson Center (that Marty linked to) as the capstone of the Obama Administration’s transparency campaign on drones and targeted killings in the conflict with al Qaeda. He made a point of referencing the string of other Administration figures that have addressed various aspects of this issue (Koh, Johnson, Holder and Preston) before expanding (albeit marginally) upon what had gone before.
There was little truly new in this speech, but it did in many instances confirm things that had previously been only obliquely referenced in a way that crystallizes the US position on a variety of matters. In contrast to his rather cagey discussion of drones several months ago at Harvard, Brennan conclusively acknowledged that the United States is using drones to conduct targeted killings in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Although he did not include an acknowledgement of the CIA’s drone program, this was a far more forthright discussion of drones and their role in counterinsurgencies than we have seen before.
Brennan also reiterated the need to respect international law and sovereignty that we first heard in Koh’s speech two years ago. He made it clear that these strikes are conducted either with the consent of the state on whose territory they occur or in cases in which the “host” state has proven unwilling or unable to incapacitate the threat. His lengthy description of the principles of necessity, distinction, proportionality and humanity made it apparent that the US views the law of armed conflict as the governing law applicable to such strikes based on an ongoing conflict with al Qaeda.
Building on Holder’s speech at Northwestern last month about the standards for targeting individuals, Brennan confirmed the importance of only targeting those with an operational involvement in al Qaeda and he emphasized that the “feasibility of capture” requirement is taken very seriously. Although he did note that feasibility of capture is determined not only by the physical/logistical difficulty in effecting capture but also with reference to the risks that our soldiers would have to face in completing the task.
Perhaps the most important amplification on previous positions that Brennan gave put the use of lethal force within the context of the larger goal, which is the defeat of al Qaeda. “We do not engage in lethal action in order to eliminate every single member of al-Qa’ida in the world.” Rather, he stated that on a number of occasions the opportunity to employ lethal force was passed up because it would not further that goal. This seemed to be the Administration’s way of telling critics that it takes the concept of blowback seriously and that each decision to employ lethal force is taken with the larger strategic picture in mind. But it also leaves no doubt that the Administration considers that decision to be one of Executive discretion.
The one piece of new ground that Brennan did cover was his acknowledgment that some form of post-action review is taken for every strike. This is something that a number of people, including myself, have said was a necessary component of any targeted killing program. Brennan did not provide details about the independence of such a review and others have led me to believe that it is not as independent or robust as many would wish, but the existence of post-action review has been confirmed.
My final overall observation is that this seemed to be a finale. We have had a four or five major speeches on this topic since the beginning of the year and my sense is that this was the last one for awhile. By referencing the other speeches and closing with an explicit discussion of the balance between transparency and national security (which Brennan claims to have struck by making all sides of the transparency debate uneasy) I believe he was signaling that this is as much as the Administration is willing to say for now on this issue.