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JUAN GONZÁLEZ: During his confirmation hearing Thursday, President Obama’s nominee to run the CIA, John Brennan, forcefully defended the president’s counterterrorism policies, including the increased use of armed drones and the targeted killings of American citizens. He also refused to say that waterboarding was a form of torture, and he admitted that he did not try to stop waterboarding while he was a top CIA official under President George W. Bush.
Four years ago, Brennan was a rumored pick for the CIA job when Obama was first elected, but he was forced to withdraw from consideration amid protests over his public support for the CIA’s policies of so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques" and extraordinary rendition program.
AMY GOODMAN: The start of Brennan’s confirmation hearing had to be temporarily halted following repeated interruptions by protesters. Members of the group CODEPINK began standing up one by one to condemn Brennan’s role in the drone war, much to the chagrin of Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That CODEPINK protester interrupting John Brennan was retired Army colonel and former diplomat Ann Wright, who oversaw the reopening of the U.S. embassy in Afghanistan in 2001 as deputy chief of mission. When she interrupted Brennan, she was wearing a sign around her neck with the name of Tariq Aziz, a 16-year-old Pakistani boy who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2011. The sign she held up read, "Brennan equals drone killing." Ann Wright and seven others were arrested. John Brennan later addressed the protesters as he defended the drone program.
JOHN BRENNAN: I think there is a misimpression on the part of some American people, who believe that we take strikes to punish terrorists for past transgressions. Nothing could be further from the truth. We only take such actions as a last resort to save lives when there’s no other alternative to taking an action that’s going to mitigate that threat. So, we need to make sure that there is understanding, and the people that were standing up here today, I think they really have a misunderstanding of what we do as a government and the care that we take and the agony that we go through to make sure that we do not have any collateral injuries or deaths. And as the chairman said earlier, the need to be able to go out and say that publicly and openly, I think, is critically important, because people are reacting to a lot of falsehoods that are out there.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, we’re joined via Democracy Now! videostream by Jeremy Scahill, producer and writer of the documentary, Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield, which premiered last month at the Sundance Film Festival. His book, Dirty Wars, goes on sale in April. He’s national security correspondent for The Nation, author of Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army and Democracy Now! correspondent.
Jeremy, welcome to Democracy Now! Your assessment of what it is that John Brennan said yesterday and the questions he was asked?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, you know, if you—if you look at what happened yesterday at the Senate Intelligence Committee, I mean, this is kabuki oversight. This was basically a show that was produced by the White House in conjunction with Senator Feinstein’s office. I mean, the reality was—is that none of the central questions that should have been asked of John Brennan were asked in an effective way. In the cases where people like Senator Angus King or Senator Ron Wyden would ask a real question, for instance, about whether or not the CIA asserts the right to kill U.S. citizens on U.S. soil, the questions were very good. Brennan would then offer up a non-answer.
In the cases where people like Senator Angus King or Senator Ron Wyden would ask a real question, for instance, about whether or not the CIA asserts the right to kill U.S. citizens on U.S. soil, the questions were very good.
John Brennan, forcefully defended the president’s counterterrorism policies
The only terrorists I see as a threat to America are the ones currently and illegitimately running the current regime.
Did John Brennan lie under oath? The answer appears to be yes.
Here’s the backstory. Senator Marco Rubio asked Brennan about Harzi, who was detained in Tunisia and eventually released by the Tunisian government. When Rubio asked why the United States couldn’t prevent Harzi’s release by the Tunisians, Brennan responded that the United States must respect Tunisian law and traditions. “The Tunisians did not have a basis in their law to hold him.” And when Rubio pushed further, Brennan dismissed his concerns and made a claim that simply isn’t true.
“We didn’t have anything on him, either,” Brennan said. “If we did, we would have made a point to the Tunisians to turn him over to us, but we didn’t have that.”
We didn’t have anything on him?
First, Harzi had a history. He’d been detained by the Tunisian government for five years, from 2006 to 2011, on terrorism charges. Among other concerns, he was then seeking to join his brother, a midlevel operative in Al Qaeda in Iraq. Second, after the Benghazi attack Harzi was detained in Turkey, at least in part on the basis of intelligence provided to the Turks by the U.S. government. Third, Harzi was held in Tunisia for three months on the strength of intelligence the U.S. government collected about his involvement in the Benghazi attacks. According to the Daily Beast, that intelligence included real-time social media updates from Benghazi about the unfolding attack. Fourth, Harzi’s own lawyer says that the Tunisian courts are still monitoring Harzi because he remains charged with membership in a terrorist group.
If Brennan believes the U.S. government doesn’t have “anything” on Harzi, it’s hard to find others who share that assessment.
“He was involved,” one U.S. official familiar with the investigation told The Weekly Standard. This view echoed those of several intelligence and law enforcement officials.
Fawzi Jaballah, an adviser to Tunisia’s justice ministry, said the Tunisian attorney general opposed the release. Interior minister Ali Larayedh said in a TV interview that Harzi is “strongly suspected to have been involved in the attack of Benghazi.”
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggested during her final appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that there is evidence of Harzi’s involvement—just not evidence that can be presented in court
.“Upon his release, I called the Tunisian prime minister,” she testified. “A few days later [FBI] Director Mueller met with the Tunisian prime minister. We have been assured that he is under the monitoring of the court. He was released because at that time—and Director Mueller and I spoke about this at some length—there was not an ability for evidence to be presented yet that was capable of being presented in an open court.”
Of course, not having evidence that can be presented “in an open court” is very different from not having “anything on him.” Would an FBI team spend five weeks on the ground in Tunisia if the U.S. government had no evidence of his involvement in the attack? And why would the FBI director discuss Harzi with the prime minister of Tunisia if the U.S. government “didn’t have anything on him”?
The short answer: He wouldn’t. Three sources familiar with the investigation tell The Weekly Standard that one of the main reasons for Mueller’s mid-January stop in Tunisia was to press the Tunisian government for help with Harzi. And no one among the dozen U.S. officials spoken to for this story agreed with Brennan’s characterization that the U.S. government “didn’t have anything on him.” Harzi was not the most important figure in the Benghazi attacks, but there is no doubt the United States has evidence of his involvement.
Brennan’s eagerness to downplay Ali Harzi should concern senators for another reason. It’s consistent with the Obama administration’s response to jihadist attacks and radical Islam more broadly. So when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to blow up an airliner over Detroit, the president falsely claimed he was “an isolated extremist” long after it was clear that he was a committed jihadist with strong ties to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. And when Faisal Shahzad sought to blow up an SUV in Times Square, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano called it a “one-off” attack by an unaffiliated individual, ignoring claims of responsibility from the Pakistani Taliban.