If you're looking for a takeaway from White House Counterterrorism Advisor John Brennan's testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, all you need is a line from Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who wanted to assure Brennan that he would keep questions short.
"I noticed you're on your fourth glass of water," Burr said, "and I don't want to be accused of waterboarding you." Plenty of people on the august panel of senators laughed at that one, because war crimes are funny.
Going into the hearings, one could hope things would be different. On Monday and Tuesday, voices on both sides reacted with disgust at a 16-page memo on White House drone policy and targeting Americans for strikes. Attitudes were shaken up and responses fresh. Rather than gin up culture war nonsense, the right-wing site Newsbusters raked MSNBC host Touré over the coals for being insufficiently committed to protecting civil liberties from a zealous executive branch.
The Obama administration reacted to the outcry by agreeing to provide the committee with copies of their full legal justification for the drone program, from which the 16-page précis was drawn. By yesterday, though, those full papers still hadn't arrived. Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.) both seemed upset. Other senators mentioned it, but it wasn't pressing. This is Need-To-Know-Eventually stuff; after a couple years, why rush it?
The centerpiece of the afternoon's pitiable exercise was a kangaroo court held between Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Brennan. Her questions weren't just slow-pitch softball; it was as if someone tweaked the settings on the pitching machine to "Half-Blind One-Armed Opponent Taking Their First Cuts Minutes After Learning of the Existence of Softball as a Game."
Feinstein was downright plummy. Was it not true that Anwar al-Awlaki was a very bad man, Mr. Brennan? And Mr. Brennan said yes. Was it not true that you had proof of al-Awlaki's involvement with many very bad things? And Mr. Brennan said yes. They both saw the necessity of what was done, and it was good.
Feinstein's exercise omitted a central conceit of the rule of law: If convicting al-Awlaki was so easy, it presumably would have been just as easy before his assassination. The U.S. had roughly a year to conduct a show trial between the time they defined al-Awlaki as an existential threat and the time they killed him. The facile ease with which Feinstein promulgated this legalistic sleight-of-hand only highlighted the craven reasons for doing so.
These guys expected you not to give a shit. Drones are bad news, and they shock people, but after a while, if ugliness becomes the background hum of the everyday, eventually you'll tune it out. Like The Onion gag, they expect "outrage fatigue" to grind you down. They expected you to tune it out. Then they whacked an American, and you got mad! Hence the mock trial: See, they totally could have done this all along, which makes everything seem legal all along.
Then again, Brennan also made a point that these targeted killings were legal only because they prevent imminent threats to the United States, as opposed to being retributive sentences carried out for existing crimes. This made the Awlaki klatsch with Feinstein even more of a Kafkaesque absurdity. After calmly engaging in the post facto conviction of a man they'd already killed, Brennan proudly stated that drone assassinations target what you might as well call Futurecrime—the proof of which he theoretically could show the committee, maybe. Brennan spends his off hours floating naked in water, in a bald cap, waiting for Tom Cruise to show up to hear him predict the transgressions of tomorrow. Unless his agent at 1600 Penn authorizes it, he's only talking to Cruise.
Things didn't stop being weird there. Levin repeatedly tried to get Brennan to acknowledge that waterboarding is torture, to which Brennan stubbornly and conveniently repeatedly replied, "I am not a lawyer." I don't know about you, but I'm pretty sure you don't need Learned Hand sitting around to figure out it hurts like hell to tear someone's fingernails out. It's a wonder Brennan didn't object to classifying torture as such because he's not also a doctor, lexicographer, or philosopher. How can we ever know anything, man? What if what you think is torture is what I call the color blue?
The Republicans had almost nowhere to go. They like Obama's expanded drone theater of war because he gives bipartisan cover for the Bush administration. Obama lets them say they were right all along. Let Democrats like Levin keep talking about torture; it seems almost trite when the president says he can kill Americans via pen stroke.
As the tough-on-terror party, they could only try to paint Brennan as a loose-lipped security threat, who may have known about dangerous administration statements about the raid on Bin Laden's compound or who might have illegally leaked facts to the press himself. Here was a huge target—the water carrier for a policy of killing over 4,700 people globally, in areas where America is not at war, including some people who are Americans—and the right didn't even try to touch him.
If you expected better from the "liberal" media, you didn't get it. On Hardball, guest host Michael Smerconish said, "The jury's still out with harsh interrogation methods, but drone strikes work." It's an apples-and-oranges statement so reliant on begged questions that it could be a midterm exam on logical fallacy. Drone strikes do work at the opposite of what interrogation seeks to provide, but whatever.
Later, Rachel Maddow painted the hearings as an all-out critique from all the Democrats, when Feinstein alone undermines the assertion. MSNBC even aired clips of Jay Rockefeller's endless dilation, supposedly as an example of hard questioning, in which he prefaced his questions with two or three minutes of dependent clauses before getting lost. At one point he—the great-grandson of John D. Rockefeller—went on pityingly about the sacrifices of life in public service. (Blast the public's hide to Hades. Now he'll never be able to enjoy that ivory back scratcher!) If this was a big attack, it sounded a lot like a few pages of Bismarck sentences with the verbs lopped off the ends.
Pity the heavy heads of the wealthy and unaccountably powerful. Project justifications for your actions forward and backward in time, while denying either end as your intended destination. Hear a joke about torture, pause for laughter. After three hours it was hard not to get the sense that this was a giant Voight-Kampff Test that everyone but Wyden and Levin failed.
Image by Jim Cooke