Secret Laws, the John Brennan vote, and the rule of law

Let  us step back for a moment from the details of what John Brennan is saying now in order to get confirmed by the Senate as CIA Director.

The Senate Intelligence Committee vote on his confirmation, like the full Senate vote that may follow, poses fundamental moral and political questions for the Senators who will be voting.  Because the Brennan confirmation itself raises key questions regarding the struggle against terrorism and the rule of law, they will in effect be voting for a definition of American democracy as it exists today, in 2013.

Moreover, because the U.S. has been been viewed over the centuries as a beacon of liberty, their votes will have far-reaching impacts throughout the world, where the nature of democracy is also at issue.

Most importantly, perhaps, their votes will engage their own individual moral responsibilty for government actions which they, whether by acquiescence or affirmation, in effect approve of or disapprove of by their votes on the Brennan nomination.

These questions go to the heart of what it means to say America is a democratic nation governed by the rule of law.

In a democracy, can the government rule by secret laws?

In a democracy, can secret decrees or interpretations of legal authority be used to  authorize or condone acts of torture, extraordinary renditions, or targeted killings?

What is the difference between secret star chamber proceedings in a dictatorship and secret proceedings in the U.S. Executive Branch by which it is decided that the right to life of a U.S. citizen, or a foreign citizen for that matter, is to be extinguished and that individual is then killed?

What does it say about American democracy today, in 2013, if Executive branch claims of legal authority to act extrajudicially to kill citizens of the U.S. or other countries are tacitly accepted, when the legal justifications for such actions are held in secret from the public and the Congress as a whole?

What does it say about American democracy when the constitutionality and legality of such actions, purportedly authorized by secret legal memoranda, are not subject to judicial review as a result of the Executive’s’ invocation of the “state secrets privilege”, whose broad interpretation by the Bush and Obama administrations the courts have not yet had the courage to strike down?

Can the American Democracy be said to be based on the rule of law, in 2013, under these circumstances?

Mr. Brennan is by all accounts the chief architect under Mr. Obama of the targeted killings programs of the Obama administration. In all likelihood, he is the single person who did most to persuade Mr. Obama, a former President of the Harvard Law Reviw and a former adjunct professor of Constitutional Law at the University of Chicago Law School, to go over to “the dark side”.

He did so in part by offering Obama moral justifications based on so-called “just war theory” going back to St. Thomas Aquinas, while ignoring the last century of developments in international law and the historical lessons they embodied.

In addition, Mr. Brennan has a deep association with the torture and extraordinary renditions programs of the Bush administration. He was unable, at his February 7, 2013 confirmation hearing before the Select Senate Intelligence Committee, to state clearly that “waterboarding” constitutes torture. Throughout his testimony he referred to acts of torture as “enhanced interrogation technicques” or, in even more Orwellian shorthand, as “EITs”.

Further, if one examines carefully the transcript of the Frebruary 7 confirmation hearing, one finds that he is a master of circumlocution and verbal legerdemain, and of telling political superiors what they want to hear.

Will he be able to enforce U.S. and international legal obligations prohibiting torture within the Central Intelligence Agency?  This appears hardly likely in view of his past, and his unwillingness to admit that even waterboarding is torture.

He has also said that the Bush torture program of enhanced interrogation techniques “saved lives”.  If he believes that to be the case, and the efficacy of torture is the standard to be applied, it is hard to see how he might avoid giving others in the CIA the impression he would give a wink and a nod to any aberrant behavior they felt they had to do.

Nor is Brennan likely to reestablish the human intelligence capabilities of the CIA, with his history of being the chief architect of the “killing lists” and the Obama policy of “targeted killings”–which is merely a euphemism for the words “targeted extrajudicial executions” or “targeted assassinations” whenver they are conducted in  violation of international law (which may be much more often than Obama claims.)

The fact that he is extraordinarily skilled at telling political authorities exactly what they want to hear, and has other Obama officials willing to assert  (on background, to be sure) that he is a voice of moral restraint within the White House, or is determined to improve the Agency’s human intelligence capabilities, should not be taken at face value. He is, after all, a spook, a trained expert in deception.  We should look at his history, his actions, and not just what he says today, in reaching any judgment about whether he should be confirmed.

Do we know yet today, for example, what role if any he played in the strange evolution of the Benghazi talking points?  His colleague, acting CIA Director Michael Morrell, could not even get his version of testimony to Congress  on the talking points  straight in a single day.

Can a democracy kill people on the basis of secret legal memoranda purporting to find legal authority for the Executive for such actions?

Can a democracy conduct extrajudicial killings in other countires without publishing its interpretation of international law that would authorize such killings, without subjecting its legal arguments to evaluation and responses by impartial experts from other countries, other states, and eventually the judges of international tribunals?

Can the Executive in a democracy kill individuals on the basis of secret legal justifications which are are shielded from judicial review and from the public?

That is the question. It is time that Senators take a stand on these issues, and there is no better opportunity or place to take such a stand than on the vote to confirm John Brennan.

By their votes, each Senator will incur individual moral responsibility for the actions he or she condones or rejects, and responsibility before history for the answers each gives  regarding the nature of democracy in America, in 2013.

The Trenchant Observer

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