The campaign against John Brennan

Liberal activists are finally mobilizing against the “assassination czar”

Topics: John Brennan, CIA, Civil Liberties, Torture,

It may have been slow in the making, but the campaign against John Brennan is starting in earnest today with two progressive groups coming out against President Obama’s choice to head the Central Intelligence Agency.

Advocates are concerned about Brennan’s distressing record on civil liberties from his long career in intelligence under both the Bush and Obama administrations. CAIR, the country’s most prominent Muslim civil society group, and the ACLU, the civil liberties organization, have both already expressed concern about Brennan’s nomination.

But today, two liberal groups are turning up the pressure by mobilizing their members against the nominee. Calling Brennan the “assassination czar” of the Obama administration, CREDO, the increasingly active grassroots mobilizing group fueled by its cell phone business, and Demand Progress, a million-plus member civil rights organization, will begin mobilizing their members later this morning to urge the Senate to reject Brennan’s confirmation as CIA director.

Becky Bond, CREDO’s political director, said promoting Brennan sends a bad message. “Despite the virtual silence on both sides of the aisle when it comes to secret killings and extraordinary rendition, it’s still wrong now. What kind of message does it send to the rest of the world if the United States, a leading democracy, confirms ‘assassination czar’ John Brennan to head the CIA?”

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Brennan advised Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008, but was forced to withdraw his name from consideration for the same job under pressure from liberals and civil liberties advocates. He was a senior official at the CIA when the agency was torturing detainees, and is the top architect of Obama’s controversial drone campaign.

“How quaint and innocent we were just four years ago, when apology for torture disqualified John Brennan from potential Senate confirmation,” said Demand Progress Executive Director David Segal. “He’s quickly built out his resume to include management of a secret kill list and oversight of a global fleet of flying death robots. Shamefully, in the minds of some establishment politicians his support for such abuses are feathers in his cap.”

Despite their success four years ago, it will be a lot harder for activists to kill Brennan’s nomination this time around. For one, he’s already been nominated, making it impossible for him to quietly bow out. He’s also expected to easily secure enough votes in the Senate, and his withdrawal would be a serious blow to Obama’s political capital, so the stakes are higher. But more importantly, civil liberties have largely dropped out of the political conversation in the intervening years, even among liberals.

Some critics, like blogger Andrew Sullivan, one Brennan’s most outspoken opponents in 2008, have even come around on the intelligence official. “I’m not as inclined to oppose him this time around, in part because torture has ended, and in part because he is increasingly one of the good guys on the drone program,” the Daily Dish columnist wrote Monday. Others, like Glenn Greenwald, are more resigned to the new era, where Brennan is merely a symptom of larger problems, so stopping his nomination may not do much, they fear.

If nothing else, however, some pressure from the left could help push Democratic senators on the Intelligence Committee to ask Brennan tough questions about the drone war and his role in post-9/11 detainee programs, as many of the details remain secret. It’s a rare opportunity to have an important conversation about civil liberties and it will only happen if activists demand it.

Read the petitions from CREDO and Demand Progress here. 

Alex Seitz-Wald

Alex Seitz-Wald is Salon's political reporter. Email him at aseitz-wald@salon.com, and follow him on Twitter @aseitzwald.

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