As a Slate commentator noticed, this Senate hearing was very typical inasmuch as it was largely about the egos of the Senators themselves—they have a comical sense of their own importance, and most have developed the knack of grandstanding to a tee—rather than the public interest or an actual serious questioning of the individual before their committee. As such, the Senators failed pretty dismally when it came to exposing the belief system that makes Brennan tick.
It has emerged that Brennan was aware of the torture which took place while he was at the CIA during the Bush years. Of the Senate hearing, CNN reported, “Brennan was asked by Sen. Saxby Chambliss, ranking Republican on the committee, why he didn’t try to stop the interrogations if he objected to them. He responded that he was aware of the program and personally objected to parts of it, but didn’t take action to stop it because his job as deputy executive director did not put him ‘in the chain of command’ for the program”.
So one thing that we do know about Brennan is that he has greater respect for bureaucratic hierarchies and pecking-orders than he does human life and dignity, or the public interest. That he is willing to turn a blind eye to structural sadism provided that there are structures in place to make that cruelty appear lawful.
It seems, in fact, that this has been Brennan’s role in the Obama administration. The Guardian reports an intelligence officer saying that “Brennan helped the President to understand he could not turn away from the things that need to be done against the terrorists, and then he helped construct the legal and moral framework so that they sat comfortably with the president’s commitments”. In other words, Brennan told the President that he needed to sign off on dirty and dark deeds. But he was willing to create a lawless legal apparatus to allow the President (who won the Nobel Peace Prize) to feel comfortable with the authorisation of abductions, murders, renditions, and the waging of aggressive war. Rather than recognising the impossibility of waging a lawful and polite war in which combatants propose to meet one another using methods of terror, rather than respecting the restrictions that existing law seeks to place on the state when it comes to the waging of such war, Brennan decided that we needed to tear up the rulebook while maintaining appearances.
But he meant well! Brennan would like us to know. There was something martyr-like about the terror guru as he spoke of “the agony that we go through to make sure that we do not have any collateral injuries or deaths”. I hope he realises how particularly bizarre and inappropriate his words are given that there are people languishing in Guantanamo right now who have been abducted and tortured without ever being informed as to which kind of crime they are meant to have committed. There are were people in the world today who were kidnapped off the streets, tortured, held against their will for years, and then released, without so much as a word of apology or compensation for the “inconvenience” caused them by the U.S. government which, Brennan would have us believe, “agonised” over their fate.
Brennan persisted in crafting his image as the voice of reluctance, reason, and restraint as he met criticism of the drone war: “‘I have been a strong proponent of trying to be as open as possible with these programs as far as our explaining what we’re doing’, Brennan said. ‘So what we need to do is make sure we explain to the American people what the thresholds for action, what the procedures, the practises, the processes, the approvals, the reviews’ ... [Brennan] advocated for more speeches by the executive branch to explain its counterterrorism efforts”. Does he actually believe that explaining a system of public safety that relies on murder, abduction, disappearance and torture will make it okay? Does he genuinely believe that speeches about the technical procedures for rationalising murder within the closed world of the CIA will get at the heart of the question that we really need to ask ourselves: whether a war of terror on terror is something morally permissible that has any hope of making our public safe?
At the hearing, Senator Rockefeller said that “he couldn’t recall ‘anybody who was more forthright, more direct, more accommodating’ and willing to work with the committee”, and Feinstein praised Brennan, saying “you really didn’t hedge”. If Senators were satisfied with the proceedings, and if Brennan is still being considered someone fit to run national security policy, clearly they haven’t been asking the right questions.
The picture of Brennan that emerged for the Senators was one of a sober, cautious, forthcoming, reasonable man.
For me, it was the encapsulation of what Hannah Arendt described as the “Banality of Evil”. It was an illustration of the fact that a wicked, cruel, lawless system is constructed not, primarily, through the efforts of fanatical foaming figures, but through the quiet work of miserable little scribblers like Brennan who are content to sit in their corners while observing, rationalising, and institutionalising injustice. Such systems are constructed when we promote a culture of keeping quiet in the face of horrific and offensive practises. They are called into being when we slide into something like our war of terror. And they are enabled by people like Brennan who whisper, in comforting voices, that the dreadful things we are doing are necessary and perhaps not all that bad.
Such voices should have no place near to the seats of power in our government, and the Senate should reject Brennan’s nomination and with it the brutal, immoral approach to securing the public interest that he represents.