Letter Regarding the Nomination of John Brennan to Head the CIA

Senator Dianne Feinstein

Chairwoman, Senate Intelligence Committee

United States Senate
331 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20510

Dear Sen. Feinstein:

The National Lawyers Guild writes to express its opposition to the nomination of John Brennan to head the Central Intelligence Agency. As President Obama’s current counter-terrorism adviser, Brennan bears responsibility for the administration’s drone program, which is killing civilians and sowing anti-American sentiment throughout the world. Brennan also stands accused of having detailed, contemporaneous knowledge of the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” on captured terrorism suspects during the Bush administration. The impact and legality of the drone program and the extent of Brennan’s involvement in the Bush torture program should be central questions at his Senate Intelligence Committee confirmation hearing.

As you know, international outrage surrounding the use of lethal drones has spurred the United Nations envoy on counter-terrorism and human rights to launch an investigation into the impact of drone strikes on civilians. Drone strikes kill not only their intended targets, but also innocent people, a fact that Brennan denied in 2011 just months after a Pakistan drone strike killed dozens at a tribal gathering. According to research by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, between 2004 and 2013, CIA drone attacks in Pakistan killed up to 3,461 people—as many as 891 of them civilians. The extralegal drone program has expanded dramatically under Brennan and if he is appointed director of the CIA we fear that it will continue to escalate.

The U.S. drone program reflects a lack of regard for human rights and international law. Christof Heyns, the U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions, said at a seminar in June 2012 that CIA attacks in Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere would encourage other states to “flout long-established human rights standards.” In a 28-page report addressed to the U.N. Human Rights Council, Heyns implores the Obama administration and the CIA to ensure that the drone program complies with international humanitarian law.

The administration has also kept the program veiled in secrecy, violating the basic tenets of a democratic society and obstructing evaluation of the lawfulness of the drone program. Article 51 of the U.N. Charter, which the U.S. has implicitly invoked to justify strikes, requires that "measures taken by Members in the exercise of [their] right to self-defense... be immediately reported to the Security Council." The U.S. has relied on Article 51 to justify drone strikes, but ignores the clause demanding transparency.

Further, a Department of Justice white paper recently obtained by the news media attempts to justify the killing of U.S. citizens. The document outlines a rationale for targeted assassinations of people who intelligence officials believe are plotting to kill Americans. While the white paper attempts to clarify the legal framework under which the drone policy is operating, it has rightly drawn widespread criticism for vesting the ultimate power to kill an individual in the executive branch and for disavowing the need for judicial review.

We urge the Senate to examine Brennan’s deep involvement with Bush administration policies of torture. As one of the Bush Administration's most public advocates of torture, Brennan asserted that so-called enhanced interrogation techniques and extraordinary rendition of detainees had "saved lives." According to multiple sources familiar with official records, Brennan was a regular recipient of CIA messages about illegal and inhumane aspects of the agency's counter-terrorism program after September 2001, including the use of waterboarding. Though Brennan publicly disavowed waterboarding after temporarily leaving government service in 2005, official records are silent on whether he opposed the techniques while at the spy agency.

We ask that the Senate examine the legality of Brennan’s policies in the drone program and assess his participation in Bush administration torture practices before considering his confirmation. We urge the Senate to ultimately reject the nomination of John Brennan rather than promote the author of one failed strategy and overseer of another.

Azadeh Shahshahani, NLG President