Drones will no doubt be the central issue of contention at John Brennan's confirmation hearing on Thursday to become Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, but whatever happened to torture? President Obama has eliminated the Bush-era controversy over enhanced interrogation as an official policy, and Brennan's involvement — he was the top aide to George Tenet, and a candidate for CIA director less than five years ago — feels weirdly irrelevant now. Indeed, despite lingering questions about his knowledge of techniques like waterboarding, the Senate Intelligence Committee may not even force Brennan to argue out loud about torture.
"The CIA is out of the detention business and it should stay that way," Brennan declares in his written response to the pre-hearing questions, insisting that he wasn't the one who crafted Bush old policies, that he never really supported it in the first place, and that he regrets that it ever happened. Some of the same committee members expected to push Brennan the hardest on drones — Sens. Ron Wyden and Mark Udall — are the only ones "deeply disappointed" that Brennan hadn't read the Senate's report on interrogation before meeting with them before the confirmation meeting. They may simply run out of time for more questions, but a review of the evolution of public criticism on "enhanced interrogation techniques" reveals that this issue may simply — and successfully, as far as the Obama administration is concerned — have faded from mass hysteria to old news.
Here's what Andrew Sullivan has to say about John Brennan, Barack Obama's choice to run the Central Intelligence Agency:
If Brennan emerges as the pick, those of us against the continuation of war crimes and the prosecution of war criminals will have to oppose him strenuously in the nomination process. We will, in fact, have to go to war with Obama ... And if Obama doubts our seriousness, I have three words for him. Yes we can.
That was four years ago. Brennan was the leading candidate to become the director of the CIA in 2008, but withdrew his name from consideration because of "strong criticism in some quarters" and a wish to avoid "any distraction from the vital work ahead." The criticism of Brennan was that he was too closely tied to George W. Bush's CIA, specifically Tenet, who Brennan served as Chief of Staff. Even more specifically, the use of rendition and torture on suspected terror suspects, a policy that was expanded and defended under their watch. Liberals wanted that policy abolished and the perpetrators punished, and they were concerned that one of the men who allowed it to happen would not be the best person to clean it up. Instead, Brennan became a trusted White House aide and did even more to shape counterterrorism policy in the Obama administration then he ever could have in Bush's. Here's what else Sullivan had to say about it at the time:
Why is such a man even considered for the post under Obama? This man cannot end the taint of Bush-Cheney. He was Bush-Cheney. In fact, if Obama picks him, it will be a vindication of the kind of ambivalence and institutional moral cowardice that made America a torturing nation. It would be an unforgivable betrayal of his supporters and his ideals.
Today, Brennan's name isn't even on the front page of Sullivan's new site. (Maybe it's a cold war?) Brennan still has the same critics — Glenn Greenwald moved from Salon to The Guardian, but is still hammering away at him. And he will face harsh questions from both Republicans and Democrats on the Intelligence Committee. But they won't be the same questions he would have received four years ago. A few people, like Alex Seitz-Wald at Salon, still remember that old torture fight, but even he concedes the new battle is about assassinations, a policy much more easily hung around Brennan's neck.
Take a look at the answers that journalists are demanding from Brennan today. (Although it's a fair bet that almost none of them will be asked at the hearing.) Lying. Drones. Leaks. Saudi Arabia. Wiretapping. Bin Laden. Iran. It seems that the question of torture has already been decided upon.
Not only is Brennan not going to take the blame on Thursday for Bush-era CIA tactics, he might even get some credit for softening the Obama-era policies. There are indications that Brennan has made the drone program more transparent and less messy than it otherwise might have been. (That's not saying much, we know.) Despite heading back to his old agency, he has actually tried to cut back on the CIA's use of drones and keep the responsibility for lethal actions in the hands of the more experienced and accountable military.
Perhaps there is a Senator on the committee who remembers that 2008 debate, and will use their time to clear the record. Udall has seemed particularly outspoken on torture this week while Wyden and other Senators like Maine's Susan Collins have pressed on the drone program. But more likely, they've all moved behind trying to find a fall guy for the last administration and would rather find someone to blame for the current one. These days, it seems like everyone gets a second chance to redeem themselves.
I'm not as inclined to oppose him this time around, in part because torture has ended, and in part because he is increasingly one of the good guys on the drone program.
Yep, that was Andrew Sullivan. One month ago today.