CIA Director John Brennan Opens Up About Drones

Though the recent news cycle is heavily focused on the spying tactics and techniques the US government uses on its own people, world leaders and foreign citizens, drone strikes still remain a major issue of concern. These unmanned planes, used to kill enemies abroad, have unintended consequences beyond eliminating terrorists, such as inspiring other terrorists, killing civilians and delegitimizing foreign governments. 

GQ scored a rare interview with CIA director John Brennan, a major influence behind President Obama's decision to increase drone strikes, who spoke candidly about the program. You can read the full interview here.

GQ: I was at your confirmation hearing last week and it was overrun by protestors. You actually addressed them in the hearing. You said: "And the people that were standing up here today, I think they really have a misunderstanding of what we do as a government, and the care that we take, and the agony that we go through to make sure that we do not have any collateral injuries or deaths." Somehow I think that isn't quite coming through.

JB: The misunderstandings—or, what really bothers me are the intentional misrepresentations of the facts, which take place on a fairly regular basis. To think that we, people who are involved in counterterrorism, do not care about civilian casualties or deaths or injuries, is just totally, totally wrong.

GQ: You've mentioned that Code Pink co-founder Medea Benjamin, who led the protests at your hearing [and who would go on to interrupt President Obama's counterterrorism speech in May] knocked on your door at home on a Sunday morning. What happened there?

JB: I was getting ready to leave to go to work. [Laughs.] I usually am not home on a Sunday morning about 11:00, but I decided to do bills or something that morning. And so I was on the way out when she knocked on my door. I thought she was a neighbor; I knew she looked familiar, but I didn't know who she was. And when she was saying she was overseas and she wants to talk to me about this, whatever—then I finally put two and two together. My wife came out and my wife knew who she was. [Laughs.] I was—I was empathizing with her. Because I think she's really trying to do good, and protect innocents from what she sees as this murderous program. And the women, and the men, who were standing up and shouting [at his Senate hearing], they really were trying to do what they thought was the right thing to do, based on their sense of morality. So who am I to judge them? Because they were operating on what they think. I like to give them the benefit of the doubt that they really believe this. And so, if anything, I was disappointed that I cannot explain to them, convince them, that their impression is wrong. That the care that is taken in our efforts really have avoided, as much as we can—as humanly possible—the types of deaths and injuries that they are protesting. 

GQ: One of the main criticisms against the program is that we're delegitimizing the friendly governments who are letting us do this.

JB: We're very cognizant that these types of programs have the potential, and reality, of backlash. And we need to be very mindful of that. You know, the example of Yemen. It's astounding how many Yemenis have died at the hands of Al Qaeda. AQAP have crucified Yemenis. They have beheaded them. They have disemboweled them. So President Hadi and others are saying, 'We need help against this cancer within our country here.' And we're trying to do this in a manner that does not lead to any type of backlash against us or the government. So it's striking that proper balance. I just had an hour-and-a-half meeting on Yemen, an interagency meeting with senior officials from throughout the government. Never once in that 90-minute meeting did we talk about a drone shot, or a kinetic strike [the government's term of art—kinetic—for blowing things up]. We talked about what we need to do to encourage and enhance the national dialogue that's taking place, the economic assistance taking place, the capacity-building—doing the types of things that we need to do for Yemen. And so unfortunately, when people talk about, you know, they think we rely on drones to effect change in these countries, that it's over-reliance on them. Well no! It's a small part of it. 

GQ: How challenging is it to say, 'Yes, you should take out this person'?

JB: I'm not ideological. I think sometimes when people are ideological, the world's a lot easier. Because it falls into either right or wrong, or black or white, or whatever. To me, I'm still trying to figure out a lot of things. You always, I think, debate with yourself about whether or not you made the right decision. And you have to then give the person that you're working for—in my instance, the president—your best judgment based on your understanding of the facts, but also the calculus you use to make a determination about what's the best way to go forward. If anything, when I go to the president now, and I make a recommendation, the thing that allows me to feel good about what I'm doing, is that I can bring 30 years of experience to the issue, so that that journey about finding that which works best, or that which is most grounded in either Just War Theory, or morality, or right or wrong—is a result of the tremendous good fortune that I've had, being in the White House years ago, and having the opportunities to travel and live overseas. There are a lot of people in the counterterrorism community who have tremendously weighty responsibilities. And I've seen them agonize and struggle as they're poring over intelligence and trying to make assessments about, you know, who was responsible for putting together this plot that is, if it comes to fruition, is going to kill Americans—men, women, and children. You always want more data; you want more information. But at some point you still have to—I get a call; I have to go up and see the president. 

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