Drones on the dais

WASHINGTON — Is the position of God subject to the confirmation process?

Does the Lord Almighty require the advice and consent of the Senate?

These are no longer abstract questions.

John Brennan may not be divine, but he plays God often as President Obama’s counterterrorism chief — and he will do so even more frequently once he moves to Langley as CIA director when (not if) senators confirm him.

Brennan is the architect of the drone warfare program, an extraordinary assertion of the executive’s powers. In this new, hidden warfare, unelected officials, without the blessing of a court, or anything else, order killings of suspected terrorists — even American citizens, perhaps on U.S. soil.

It’s an expansion of presidential authority crying out for congressional oversight, and last week was the Senate’s big chance to explore in public the policy of targeted killing using unmanned aircraft. But the only drones in evidence Thursday afternoon at Brennan’s confirmation hearing were the lawmakers on the dais. With few exceptions, they weren’t prying, and Brennan wasn’t volunteering.

Would Brennan provide the Senate intelligence committee with a list of countries in which the CIA has performed targeted killings? “If I were to be confirmed as director of CIA, I would get back to you” was all Brennan would commit to, “and it would be my intention to do everything possible to meet this committee’s legitimate interests and requests.”

Would Brennan talk about the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, one of the most prominent targets of drone warfare?

“I’m not going to talk about any particular operation or responsibility on the part of the U.S. government for anything whatever,” Brennan replied.

“See, that’s the problem,” the committee chairman, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., replied; she noted that she has asked the administration “for increased transparency on the use of targeted force for over a year.” Feinstein complained that she can’t even discuss the civilian casualties associated with drone strikes, saying she has been told: “It’s a covert program. For the public, it doesn’t exist.”

Brennan’s response: Trust me. He assured the committee that, although administration lawyers have granted him and his colleagues enormous latitude to kill, “we only use these authorities and these capabilities as a last resort.”

With his stocky build, silver crew cut and 9/11 commemorative wristband, Brennan came across more as a plain-spoken cop than as the federal government’s top killer. Twirling a pen in his fingers and resting his elbows on the witness table, he handled the lawmakers’ questions with unwavering confidence.

The senators, with few exceptions, exempted Brennan from tough questioning about the drone program, quizzing him instead on interrogation techniques; leaks; the attack on diplomats in Benghazi, Libya, last September; events in Tunisia; even the effects of looming spending cuts.

The only people truly eager to press Brennan on the drone program were Code Pink demonstrators, whose heckling forced Feinstein, after multiple interruptions, to suspend the hearing and order all public spectators removed from the room. That overreaction left 140 seats empty and a created undesirable irony: A hearing that should have been about transparency instead ended in the exclusion of the public.

Some of the lawmakers’ reticence to press Brennan had to do with the classified nature of the program. But politics played a role. Republicans didn’t pry because they favor the targeted-killing program, and Democrats didn’t raise civil-liberties objections because Brennan is the nominee of a Democratic president.

That’s a dangerous mindset. The Iraq War was initially popular — before it took a disastrous turn. And though a large majority of Americans support the drone-warfare program, they are far more skeptical of killings that target U.S. citizens.

To the minority of senators who dared to challenge him on the drone program, Brennan offered vague reassurance. “I never believe it’s better to kill a terrorist than to detain him,” he told Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga. Brennan assured Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, that people in areas affected by the drone strikes “have welcomed the work that the U.S. government has done.”

After Capitol Police cleared the public from the room, Brennan spoke about the demonstrators. “I think they really have a misunderstanding of what we do as a government,” he said, “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.”

That may well be true. But on a matter of such weight, “trust me” isn’t good enough.

Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist. His email address is danamilbank@washpost.com.

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