The Drone Secrets Inside John Brennan

Dashiell Bennett

The United States has been operating a secret CIA drone base out of Saudi Arabia for the last two years — a landmark counter-terror operation that several news organizations and lawmakers knew about but didn't acknowledge until today. The catalyst for the story finally breaking is John Brennan's nomination to head the CIA. As the Obama administration's top counterterrorism official, no one knows more about the drone program and the U.S.'s most controversial and clandestine operations than Brennan does. His confirmation hearing on Thursday may be the best — and possibly last — chance for the American public to learn more about our robotic lethal operations abroad.

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Now, in a week that has already seen the leak of a "white paper" on the targeted killing of American citizens and the administration's drone program rise from clandestine legalise to coffee-table conversation, many unanswered question still remain: How much else does Brennan know? How much does the Senate? And how much will the Senate Intelligence Committee get Brennan to divulge by week's end?

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Senator Ron Wyden is already becoming more explicit by the day, insisting that he will use the hearing as leverage to extract more still-classified information from the White House, saying, “If the Congress doesn't get answers to these questions now, it's going to be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to get them in the future.”

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Perhaps even more interesting than the Senator's efforts to dig deeper, is that there are people outside the government who know some of these details but hadn't divulged them until Brennan himself stopped into the spotlight. About halfway through The Washington Post's story on the Saudia Arabian base, the paper admits that it knew about it from the very beginning, but didn't say anything because they were asked not to report it. Here's the key passage:

The Washington Post had refrained from disclosing the location at the request of the administration, which cited concern that exposing the facility would undermine operations against an al-Qaeda affiliate regarded as the network’s most potent threat to the United States, as well as potentially damage counterterrorism collaboration with Saudi Arabia.

The Post learned Tuesday night that another news organization was planning to reveal the location of the base, effectively ending an informal arrangement among several news organizations that had been aware of the location for more than a year.

The other news organization is The New York Times, which also presumably knew about the base for some time in the course of its reporting on drone memos and kill lists, but waited until today's Page One story about Brennan and the drone war to drop the news. The theme of their story is that Brennan's nomination is putting a new spotlight on the program — a spotlight conveniently being shined by The New York Times.

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What today's stories remind us is that there are plenty of people in and out of government who are aware of the drone program, and where and how it operates. Senators receive intelligence briefings, military officials coordinate logistics, reporters get tips, diplomats negotiate terms, and spies trade secrets. The difference is what gets shared with the public is selective and seemingly random and often determined by unrelated political events — like a confirmation hearing. Anyone could have broken the story before today, but it took Brennan's nomination to push it forward. That's just one reason why few people ever see the whole picture, at least not until the entire affair is over and done with it.

"Secret" US drone base in Saudi Arabia was \widely known. Surprised media collectively agreed to w/hold that info for a year.

— Micah Zenko (@MicahZenko) February 6, 2013

Maybe the only person who does see the whole picture, besides perhaps President Obama, is Brennan himself — the Times's kill-list story described him as "[b]eside the president at every step" on pulling Predator and Reaper triggers. A career CIA officer, Brennan has overseen all side of the program for the administration and may be the only one who can keep it in check; if he even wants to, that is — in a couple different speeches last year, he doggedly defendes the targeted killing program. Thursday's hearing may force him to give up some of those details, but if a CIA director can't hold back some secrets, well, then he wouldn't be doing his job.

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Senators on the intelligence committee have thus far stopped short of saying they would block Obama's nomination to get more classified information out of the administration, such as the 50-page memo justifying the killing of Americans on which the "white paper" is based and which has only otherwise been described in broad strokes. But one solution may, in fact, be to keep Brennan — no matter how good a job he's done — from being the last unconfirmed person to have that much power, because for a chief counterterrorism advisor working out of the White House basement, he has in many ways overseen an unprecedented new form of war. As one former State Department official put it to the Times today, "He's probably had more power and influence than anyone in a comparable position in the last 20 years." But don't count one Senate hearing to change all that.