Giving a big Irish welcome to America’s ‘assassination tsar’

Opinion: Not so many people seem to care about rendition, torture and wire-taps

John Brennan: has explicitly defended what is called ‘advanced interrogation’. Photograph: Getty Images

John Brennan: has explicitly defended what is called ‘advanced interrogation’. Photograph: Getty Images


The Christian Science Monitor has described John Brennan as America’s “assassination tsar”. But this doesn’t seem to have damaged his image in parts of Ireland.

On the John Murray Show on Monday, Kathryn Thomas talked to some of the people behind what was presented as the terrific success of Brennan’s visit last weekend to Kilteevan in Roscommon. Eileen Fahey, chair of the local community development group, declared that, in his position as director of the CIA, Brennan was “doing his bit to keep Ireland, the world safe . . . And you have to respect that.” “Absolutely,” cooed the presenter.

A B&B owner who had had the “great honour” of hosting some of Brennan’s bodyguards drew chuckles with her reminiscence of the burly fellows coming down in the morning expecting Irish stew for breakfast!

But maybe we should cut Kilteevan some slack. The CIA boss had arrived with his brother, Tom, and his father, 93-year-old Owen, who had emigrated from the village 65 years ago. A touch of sentimental indulgence might be excusable. And more important – why should Kilteevan reject a man because of his involvement in kidnapping, internment, torture and so forth when hardly anybody else appears to have a problem with him on this account?

Brennan had been CIA number two. One of Obama’s first acts upon election in 2008 was to nominate him to the top job. That plan foundered in a storm of protest: under Bush, Brennan had explicitly defended “rendition” and “enhanced interrogation” and had argued for immunity for telecom companies involved in illegal wire-tapping for the National Security Agency.

Obama withdrew Brennan’s name when it became clear he wouldn’t win a Senate majority for confirmation. So he appointed him National Security Adviser instead. In this capacity, Brennan has supervised a vast expansion of “targeted assassinations” by drones and has pioneered the tactic of “signature strikes” in Yemen – selecting drone targets without necessarily knowing who they are, with the object of letting locals know who’s calling the shots.

In 2012, Obama put Brennan’s name forward again. Daniel Ellsberg commented: “Although I actively opposed Brennan’s CIA nomination in 2008, I can’t quite muster the energy or commitment to do so now. Indeed, the very idea that someone should be disqualified from service in the Obama administration because of involvement in and support for extremist Bush terrorism policies seems quaint and obsolete.”

On the morning of the Senate vote on Brennan’s nomination, the New York Times commented: “It is uncertain whether the torture issue will now cause any problems for Mr. Brennan.” And indeed, “no problem” was the Senate message.

Ellsberg will understand more clearly than most the connection between government-sanctioned torture and murder on the one hand and mass surveillance and the harassment of journalism on the other. He is the man who, in 1971, leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times and the Washington Post, exposing the lies on which the war on Vietnam had been based and revealing the illegal bombing of Cambodia. Within two months, President Nixon’s aides had assembled the “White House plumbers” who set about burgling the offices of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist and monitoring journalists’ contacts and communications.

The Ellsberg revelations and others which followed pointed to programmes of covert assassination, the subversion of unfriendly governments and illegal invasions of privacy to protect the government from scrutiny. Congress was so alarmed it established a committee under Democratic senator Frank Church to investigate the activities of the CIA, the NSA and the FBI.

In 1975, Church said of the NSA: “I know the capacity that is there to make tyranny total in America, and we must see to it that this agency and all agencies that possess this technology operate within the law and under proper supervision, so that we never cross that abyss. That is the abyss from which there is no return.”

On June 11th – following Glenn Greenwald’s story in the Guardian of the dizzying scale of NSA surveillance revealed in the Edward Snowden documents – Ellsberg wrote that, “the US has now fallen into that abyss”.

This may be overstating it. We must hope so. There are still some robust liberals and even lefties alive and kicking in the US. In the UK, some politicians and most of the press have, so far, stood firm against the arbitrary detention at Heathrow of Greenwald’s partner, David Miranda. And in Ireland, not everyone is entranced by the picture of one of the world’s most shameless defenders of murder sitting snug in a Roscommon community centre, singing ballads, sipping pints and toasting the local leprechauns.

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