Morning Joe | February 08, 2013
>>> on capitol hill yesterday, tough questions about drones and waterboarding dominated a contentious hearing for the man nominated to be the next head of the cia. john brennan , the architect of the obama administration's drone program, strongly defended their use, saying strikes only take place to prevent terror threats, not as punishment for them.
>> 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.
>> democratic senator ron wyden who has demanded more insight into the administration's legal justification for drone strikes against americans pressed brennan on the issue.
>> do you believe that the president should provide an individual american with the opportunity to surrender before killing them?
>> any american who joins al qaeda will know full well that they have joined an organization that is at war with the united states and has killed thousands upon thousands of individuals, many, many of them who were americans . so i think any american who did that should know well that they, in fact, are part of an enemy against us and that the united states will do everything possible to destroy that enemy to save american lives.
>> richard haass , you watched all that testimony yesterday, but you also read from beginning to end that white paper that was released earlier this week, or is that nbc got ahold of, and you were troubled by it, as someone who's served in the white house on foreign policy . what bothered you the most about the way it was put together?
>> let's separate it into two sets of issues. one is the criteria for when the united states does say a drone attack and the other is the process by which we make the specific decision. the criteria are simply not sustainable. for example, there's three. the first with is that it has to be imminent, the idea that the terrorists planning an attack are about to launch an attack. we don't know that. so you can't meet the first threshold you set. we don't wait till it's imminent because we never know. and that's clear if you look at all the drone strikes we've done, by the time someone has made the career choice to be a terrorist, we decide that they qualify as a potential target. indeed we go beyond that. so-called signature strikes, you target people who appear to be doing the sorts of things that terrorists tend to do. we set up criteria that we ourselves do not meet. we then say it has to be the capture is infeasible. you don't want to have to capture because that would be putting special forces in harm's way. we have a policy that in a funny sort of way we need to violate every day. so i really don't understand the document that the justice department cooked up. it simply doesn't bear scrutiny.
>> we'll go deeper into drones and waterboarding in just a moment. i wanted to get to kelly on this as well. richard , overall, we've been watching hearings, hagel, kerry, others who were nominated for different positions. how did brennan do?
>> i think he had a little bit of trouble on the waterboarding and the torture question about his own position and in particular whether waterboarding constitutes torture. i think that was the weakest part of his performance.
>> but overall?
>> overall okay. this is a serious person. he's been involved with a controversial but serious policy. and these are really tough questions, mika. overall, i don't think he created problems for himself.
>> they are tough -- i thought he was amazing.
>> you contrast him to hagel. i want that guy in that chair.
>> he seemed really sure of himself and on the areas where he had trouble, that's what you'd hope for, actually, because those are really difficult questions that don't have --
>> to wrestle with these things.
>> these are not easy choices.
>> kelly o'donnell, what's been the response on capitol hill ?
>> reporter: in talking about how john brennan performed, i think what stands out is a couple of things. in part, he made a very convincing case for why he wants the job. and that's one thing that we really didn't get a sense of from chuck hagel throughout the about three hours of testimony, he really made a passionate case for his love of serving the country, his expertise in this area, and the seriousness with which he would take some of the concerns these senators brought to him. promising more transparency, promising truthfulness when one democrat, in particular, said she has been, quote, jerked around by just about every cia director in her long tenure and time on that specific committee. so he was very persuasive there. when richard talks about the trouble he had with waterboarding , in part, he was really trying to avoid using the word "torture" because it does have a legal implication, and it has such a political implication. that that would have been such a huge headline if he had, in fact, called it torture. so he said pretty much everything around that. he does have the issue of having been part of a time when these things were used in saying, quite plainly, he didn't do anything to try to stop it. nears there's no record they could find of him having protested internally in those years but now it's very much clear that he would not support anything like that if he were confirmed. his passage to confirmation is expected to come pretty easily in part because he did give some of the most concerned -- and they tend to be democrats on these issues of human rights implications of things like drones -- a promise to do more. and ron wyden and some of his colleagues, really this was a long journey to get some of these concessions from the white house , really a couple of years of fighting relentlessly when they didn't get the headlines of trying to get some of this information brought to their attention when they really argued that they have a standing here, that they needed to have a better access to this information. so that was a bit of a victory for them, too.
>> a tightrope always. brennan was also questioned extensively about waterboarding and the use of enhanced interrogation techniques during the george w. bush administration . it was the same issue that derailed brennan 's consideration for cia director four years ago.
>> my question is this. in your opinion, does waterboarding constitute torture?
>> the attorney general has referred to waterboarding as torture. many people have referred to it as torture. attorney general, premiers of law enforcement officer and lawyer of this country, and as you well know and as we've had the discussion, senator, the term "torture" has a lot of legal and political implications.
>> do you have a personal opinion as to whether waterboarding is torture?
>> i have a personal opinion that waterboarding is reprehensible, and it's something that should not be done.
>> richard haass , what's different than four years ago when he was derailed?
>> we haven't been doing this for a while. and i think the issue has in some ways been overtaken by the drone issue.
>> look at the two debates.
>> we've done something like 400 drone strikes, the united states , thousands of people have been killed. this is the issue that is front and center. waterboarding , however you define it, is no longer front and center because the u.s. has discontinued doing it. we talk about "zero dark thirty."
>> 400 drone strikes. do we know, any idea, about civilian casualties within those? any concept? collateral damage ?
>> it wasn't the best part of mr. brennan 's testimony yesterday, there has been significant collateral damage . the numbers are obviously -- whether it's hundreds or thousands -- the real question is, you've got to ask yourself on a cost benefit way, yes. at times innocents are going to be hurt. you've got to ask yourself don rumsfeld 's questions. what you are accomplishing against terrorists, is that to some extent offset by the fact that you're alienating populations and governments with whom you have to work? that's the question we have to constantly ask ourselves, this cost benefits test.
>> john, it's donny. if we got to the point and as i listen to mr. brennan , where we were going to do a drone strike against an american citizen , it would be the most desperate of times, and i don't want to have to go through a fisa court , and i've got no problem with them doing it.
>> i understand your feeling on that. the issue here is -- gene robinson in his column today raises a good point. he says if this were going on under george w. bush , he would have raised hell about it. and the fact that the president is barack obama doesn't change the fact that he's going to raise hell about this, that the president of the united states , if he's going to, as he says, violate the rights of an american citizen by killing him through a drone strike, that the president or the high government -- senior government official has to go to someone, some sort of court for approval to get this done. as richard said, the three criteria set up in that justice department white paper are incredibly elastic. imminent threat , capture infeasible, last resort, those are all things, as richard said, especially the imminent threat , is something that's violated every day when they do these drone strikes. so while i understand why you're not bothered by it, that could be because the president who's implementing this policy is someone you trust, but there are going to be other presidents. and as has been reported i believe on msnbc yesterday, maybe even by kelly , that it's the precedent that's being set up that is giving a lot of people concern. there's a democrat in the white house today, there could be a republican in the white house four years from now, eight years from now who might take this farther than we can ever imagine.
>> so richard , you have no problem, regardless of republican or democrat, joint chiefs of staff , entire defense department says we need to do this unless we are in imminent danger, and you're okay with a judge saying no, final judge and jury , a judge going against the commander in chief, against the entire defense department in saying this is not an imminent threat ?
>> first of all, i'd get rid of the imminent. it's nonsensical. we don't have the kind of actionable intelligence to know whether it's imminent? let's just put that aside. we need a process which, by the way, i would take the president out of -- i am shocked that the president would be involved in the kind of tactical decisions on this. i would have something with military intelligence , maybe one independent person. it's got to be a very high bar . we do not ever want to usealierly or unnec essarily. let's get real here. that we are involved in a global war on terror . these are people who want to kill americans . you don't want to set up criteria or set the bar so high that we essentially tie ourselves in knots. like everything else in life, this is tough calls, this is balance. i think the administration has it slightly off. i think the bar has to be made a little bit higher.
>> so kelly , while a lot of people right now are arguing that this is unethical, perhaps illegal, the drone program, the white house and mr. brennan would argue that this is effective, that it has broken up al qaeda , that al qaeda is on the run, that we are winning the war against terrorists. so does all this conversation, do all these hearings, do all our conversations have any real impact on policy? if we look out a month or a year from now, will our drone policy be any different than it is right now?
>> reporter: well, public support for these things does have some level of impact. but it really will be much more difficult because so few of us have access to the real information. when you're talking about classified issues and a very limited number of people in congress, for example, who have oversight and they're struggling to get that oversight, it does make it more difficult. in terms of the public conversation, when you heard jonathan talking about, well, there will be someone else in the white house , if dick cheney were the face of this program, would people feel differently? and there's also the issue that many members of congress are sensitive about part of the feasibility question, is you can't get american boots on the ground in some of these places. we've seen the risk to s.e.a.l.s when they are dispatched in really perilous circumstances. do americans want to see a greater footprint to try to get some of these suspected terrorists? so there are really hard questions here. but i think people do have to look at it in terms of a political lens. is that trust factor with a given president affecting how they view this? if you take some of the passions of the moment out of it in terms of our patriotism and our sense of being concerned about what could happen to the country and try and have a cooler approach, would that change how people view it? so you heard that some of these senators want to have this sort of court system kind of like the wireless warrants that were going on and so much of a hot topic, when you think about wiretapping getting people so enraged. here you're talking about violent attacks. they acknowledge there are civilian casualties , very hard to know how many. it's the frequency of the drone strikes that gets people concerned as well.
>> you know, that is a fantastic point and really the crux of the controversy here. and i wonder if i'm affected by the way i'm looking at this, and i've been thinking about that for the past few days.
>> if somebody by nature, a democrat, is a bit more restraint traditionally than a republican, of course, if they're being aggressive, you're a lot more open to it versus somebody who basically in their kind of from a policy point of view is a bit more hawkish. it's common sense .
>> i have a twitter follower who says the hypocrisy of the gop members questioning brennan is unbelievable. he should turn on them and ask why they're concerned now. it's just -- you know, this is definitely, you know, depending on your allegiance to a certain administration, your trust is where, then, you have wiggle room in your mind for it.
>> that's true, but i think there's another issue as well which is whether we want the president of the united states and the white house so intimately associated publicly with this -- with participation in this set of decisions on a daily basis. i would say not. i actually think we want to have it one step -- we don't have the president pick out bombing targets in a war. this is the equivalent of it. yes, it ought to be a high flesh hold, but he ought to delegate this. i think you ought to have a little space between what the president of the united states does and essentially calling potentially for the killing of an american who, because of the circumstances, we can't offer due process to. i do not think you want to bring this into the white house , make it operational. i actually think you want to push it out of the white house and create a process that you have confidence in.
>> i see your point except that ultimately that could get criticism because he is the president, and i think he's assuming it's on me.
>> yeah, but again, mika, in a war --
>> delegating death?
>> we do not want to have the equivalent -- when lyndon johnson got criticized for poring over the bombing targets on a daily basis during vietnam. ever since then presidents have distanced themselves from that sort of tactical participation. i'm not sure it's a good use of their time. i'm not sure we want to have the president go so one on one with terrorists.
>> it does make them accountable.
>> and this president who seems to be so above it all and keeps kind of a space between himself and a lot of decisions especially in the beginning of his first term with health care and everything else, and yet he is so close to this one. i think it's fascinating. i'm not sure i agree with you.
>> would be if he was accountable.
>> every president's accountable for everything that gets decided decided. there's a difference between accountability. that's what the white house needs to do.
>>> coming up, we have former national security adviser dr. zbigniew brez zbigniew brzezinski , david ignatius , angus king and leigh gallagher and bill karins with the latest on the blizzard in the east coast . first, mike allen with the top stories in the "politico playbook." you're watching " morning joe " brewed by