John Brennan’s confirmation hearing on Thursday before the Senate Intelligence Committee struck many observers as a small but significant step in the direction of openness, a chink in the armor of secrecy that the last two presidential administrations have erected around the “war on terror.” Maybe that will turn out to be correct, and the incoming CIA director – the principal architect of President Obama’s drone war, and until recently a defender of rendition and “enhanced interrogation” – will launch a new era of transparency in Langley. While we wait for that, would you like to see this bridge I've got for sale in Brooklyn?
Indeed, watching the Brennan hearing, and then struggling through the troubling Justice Department “white paper” spelling out the legal justification for the drone killings of American citizens (which was recently acquired and released by NBC News), left me with quite a different feeling. In large part, this was the feeling that our government’s imperial creep continues uninterrupted, that most people simply don’t care (irrespective of their supposed political views) and that almost everyone involved in this charade, especially those of us in the media who are supposed to serve as the watchdogs, has agreed to ignore the most obvious and glaring questions.
Beyond all that, and to a large extent underlying it, there is also the post-Orwellian creep of our language, and of all public discourse, towards emptiness. What Orwell described was a phenomenon distinct to the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century, the abrupt replacement of ordinary language with a propagandistic and bureaucratic Newspeak designed to make ideological resistance impossible. In the electoral dictatorship now developing in the United States – and no, that isn't a contradiction in terms – you can find sterling examples of such Newspeak and doublethink. But the most prominent American version, which I’m calling post-Orwellian, is subtler: Ordinary words whose meanings seem clear enough on the surface, such as “war” or “enemy” or “self-defense” or “imminent” (not to mention the ever-fraught “terrorism”) turn out not to mean anything at all, or to be legalistic terms of art with endlessly expansive frames of reference.
If this is starting to sound too much like a graduate seminar in literary theory, let’s remember that the real subject here is an amorphous 12-year war conducted largely in secret by two presidential administrations from opposing parties. Its result, if not its true purpose, has been the creation of an invisible and unaccountable national-security state apparatus and the consolidation of immense and unprecedented power in the executive branch. If the Bush administration claimed the right to detain and torture anyone it wanted to at “black sites” in insalubrious parts of the world, the Obama administration has arguably gone even further, claiming the right to kill anyone anywhere whom it deems to be an enemy combatant, including United States citizens like Anwar al-Awlaki and his teenage son, with long-range drone strikes piloted from afar.
Historians, political scientists and policy analysts will be hashing out the rights and wrongs of these issues for years to come, and there’s no denying that one reason we elect presidents is to entrust them with decisions that cannot realistically be made in public. But the combination of imperial creep and linguistic creep, and the reflexive America-first jingoism of almost all public discourse, even among so-called liberals, makes it difficult even to ask certain kinds of questions without seeming dim or embarrassing. Why, for instance, does the United States, and only the United States, possess the authority to treat the entire developing world as a war zone and rain high-tech death from above on villages in Pakistan and Yemen and Somalia and other places so classified we don’t know about them yet? (Some sources suggest that upwards of 3,000 alleged al-Qaeda militants have been killed by drone strikes in those places during Obama’s presidency, along with several hundred civilians.)
I suppose to some people the answer seems self-evident, and I don’t want to sound hopelessly naive: Yes, the U.S. is the world’s only military superpower at the moment, yada yada. But, seriously, try to imagine what would happen if the Chinese or the Iranians started routinely blowing up people they didn’t like in countries thousands of miles away, randomly killing civilians by the dozens along the way. Every senator on that committee would give birth to multiple litters of kittens, call for the launching of World War III, and immediately pass laws granting the president unlimited war powers into the indefinite future. (OK, they already did that, pretty much.) The rhetoric of American exceptionalism, and in particular the idea that American military force is indispensable to world order and no longer needs to respect old-fashioned ideas about national sovereignty or what a war is or how we define the enemy – none of that is ever questioned, or even comes up.
A long time ago in a different context, Joan Didion observed that the reporter’s job was to “observe the observable.” What I observed on Thursday was that Brennan’s appearance before the committee, and his garrulous New Jerseyite act, made for effective political theater, but that its effectiveness had more to do with the semiotics of the event than with what was actually said. (I’m definitely never playing cards for money with that guy.) Specifically, the hearing was a show of faux-deference to legislative authority by an emissary from the imperial palace, which left the senators almost cravenly grateful for a few scraps of information and noncommittal promises of future cooperation. (I didn't register which Republican senator used up his time by chatting about Chris Christie and complimenting Brennan’s wife.) Sure, a few of them complained, but everybody in that room understood that once Brennan is confirmed, the committee will be lucky to get a Hallmark card out of him next Christmas.
Brennan gave a cool performance, in both the ordinary sense and the Marshall McLuhan sense, and remained unflappable in the face of “hot” Code Pink protesters who disrupted the proceedings, calling him a war criminal and listing the names of children killed by drones. While the protesters rapidly became part of the spectacle’s colorful background, Brennan stuck to the leading role of a grownup who understands the nature of reality when others do not. You could even say he was there to define reality, an ultimate exercise in imperial power. Sounding eerily like Vietnam War architect Robert McNamara circa 1969, Brennan calmly explained that many of us misunderstood the CIA’s good intentions, and failed to appreciate “the care we take, the agony we go through, to make sure we do not have any collateral injuries and deaths.”
In fairness, we heard a few extraordinary things said about topics that are almost never discussed in open congressional session. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., almost the only Senate Democrat willing to criticize President Obama on civil liberties, told Brennan, “Every American has the right to know when their government believes it’s allowed to kill them.” (The director-designate did not respond directly.) Newly elected Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, suggested that the CIA’s drone-targeting decisions should be subject to judicial review, as espionage warrants are. King’s Maine colleague Susan Collins, arguably the Senate’s last moderate Republican, actually challenged the effectiveness, if not the underlying morality, of the drone war: “If the cancer of al-Qaeda is metastasizing, do we need a new treatment?”
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