Chuck Hagel: America's new drone czar?

Here’s what I was getting at in the last post about O potentially using Hagel more as a fig leaf for his own hawkish policies than letting Hagel help him to unleash the dove within. To the extent the left still cares about the Bush-ier elements of Obama’s counterterror approach, their chief concern is drone strikes. With good reason: After ranting about “King George” for eight years, the guy they elected to replace him now oversees his very own “kill list” targeting jihadis (including those with American citizenship) in an ever-expanding array of countries with an ever-expanding death toll of civilians as collateral damage. Surely the appointment of Chuck Hagel signals that O’s prepared to retreat from his Hellfire-missile whack-a-mole strategy, right?

Nope. The other side of today’s personnel coin is John Brennan, Obama’s counterterror czar and the de facto head of the drone program, being sent to replace Petraeus at CIA. The drones aren’t going away anytime soon, especially with fewer American boots on the ground in Afghanistan; Obama prefers to wage war in the shadows, just as he prefers to incinerate targets rather than capture them and then cope with the legal headaches of where to house them or whether to render them. So not only is the Hagel appointment unlikely to pay dividends for the left on one of their few remaining counterterror priorities, the guy tasked with overseeing the drone campaign might soon be … Chuck Hagel himself:

Since last April John Brennan, President Obama’s nominee to head the CIA, has been the point man making the administration’s legal and moral case for targeted killing (what used to be called assassination). But Brennan has also indicated he doesn’t want the CIA to be in the paramilitary, as opposed to spying, business (at least not all that much). All of which raises an important question: As CIA director will Brennan continue his current role as the administration’s counterterror chief, turning the agency into the president’s personal killing machine? Or will he try to fob off more of the dirty work on the Pentagon?

And if Brennan decides to do the latter, how will Chuck Hagel react? The new nominee to run the Pentagon has long talked about conducting a moral foreign policy “determined as much by our commitment to principle as by our exercise of power,” as he once put it in a Foreign Affairs article. Hagel has also sought to restrain the use of force so as cause a minimum of “collateral damage”—that is, the accidental killing of innocents – and critics say that is one of the biggest problems with Obama’s dramatically stepped-up drone program…

In an email to National Journal on Monday, a senior administration official said he didn’t “expect any daylight between Brennan and Hagel over counterterrorism policy or operations. They both understand how to go after terrorists effectively, prudently, and within the confines of American law and policy — that’s a hallmark of how both men come at these questions.”

Sounds like the White House either has already gotten Hagel’s thumbs up on drone strikes or else they expect they can get his thumbs up without much difficulty. Or maybe the blather about the Pentagon taking over the drone program is just that — blather, with Brennan to retain control once he’s enthroned at CIA. O’s done a lot of damage to AQ under Brennan’s guidance. Why mess with the formula now?

If confirmed by the Senate to lead the CIA, John Brennan, to paraphrase Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln, will be clothed in immense power. He’s already an architect of the CIA’s accelerated counterterrorism campaign, the one that launches drone strikes at suspected terrorists around the world. From his perch at the White House, Brennan has been a major advocate for the CIA, perhaps more effectively than the men running Langley, thanks to his close relationship with Obama…

Intelligence veterans who’ve worked with Brennan don’t expect him to make major changes at Langley. After all, much of the CIA’s focus during the Obama administration has come under Brennan’s somewhat removed watch. Those who want to see the CIA hand over control of the drone program to the U.S. military — a position that the Washington Post reported Brennan was sympathetic to in the White House — may be disappointed.

“It may be that once he’s sitting at CIA and has his hand on the joystick, as it were, he may be reluctant to divest control to the military,” says Robert Grenier, a former director of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center. “There’s little question that both for substantive and political reasons the war on terrorism is still on the front burner, and he’s certainly not going to take his foot off the gas with regard to the war on terrorism.”

That’s the best of both worlds for O. He’ll still have his star quarterback running the drone-strike offense but now he’ll have Chuck Hagel as head cheerleader to reassure the left that everything’s being done conscientiously. Surely he wouldn’t simply tell them what they wanted to hear, right?

One more fun footnote to all this, to illustrate how far we’ve come from the days of progressive high dudgeon over counterterror policy. The whole reason Brennan originally ended up in the White House as O’s counterterror czar rather than as the head of the CIA was because back in 2009 his support for enhanced interrogation made him radioactive to liberals. The avatar of Hopenchange couldn’t very well nominate a man like that; why, the Democratic Senate might even refuse to confirm him. Four years of Democratic rule later, with the left’s interest in this subject having duly and predictably faded, O’s finally going to run him out there for a confirmation hearing with little serious opposition expected. Perfection.

Jazz Shaw May 16, 2022 12:41 PM ET