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A Sunday morning chat about drones with counter-terrorism chief John Brennan

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John Brennan, not at home. (Photo: AP)

Having recently returned from Pakistan meeting with drone victims, on November 4 my partner Tighe Barry and I were having a leisurely Sunday morning breakfast. The discussion turned to John Brennan, Obama’s counter-terrorism chief and the key person making decisions about drone strikes. We wondered if Brennan ever had a chance to meet innocent drone victims, as we did, and feel their pain.

“Maybe we should go to his house and talk to him,” quipped Tighe. We laughed at the absurdity of the idea but decided to do a little bit of research. Fifteen minutes later, we were out the door, driving to a Virginia suburb an hour south of Washington DC. I had no idea if it was really John’s address, but it was a lovely day for a drive—and Tighe was willing to indulge me.

Exiting the freeway, we came to an area of rolling hills, green grass and private horse farms. As we approached what we thought might be John Brennan’s street, we were sure it was a mistake. How could this be? It was a nondescript upper middle class neighborhood, with children playing in the yards—no security, no government vehicles. The house was in a cul-de-sac sandwiched between two other houses, without so much as a fence surrounding it.

I decided to go knock on the door to make sure we were wrong. A middle-aged, white-haired guy in a casual sweater and jeans opened the door, accompanied by someone who l assumed was his wife.

Could this really be John Brennan? The same man who championed “enhanced interrogation techniques” under President Bush? The same man who now decides, on “terror Tuesdays”, who will be on the CIA kill list? The guy who developed the Orwellian “disposition matrix”—a blueprint for disposing of terrorist suspects for at least another decade?

I hesitated. He looked much younger and thinner than I remembered, and he looked like such a nice man. And would someone who spent his career in the CIA and was the nation’s counterterrorism czar be answering his own door?

“John?,” I asked. “Yes,” he replied tentatively. I continued, still doubting that he was really John Brennan. “I’m sorry to bother you at your home on a Sunday, but I wanted to talk to you about a recent trip.”

“A trip?”, he asked, squinting his eyes and cocking his head to the side. “A trip to where?” “Pakistan,” I answered. “Ohhhhh,” he said.

What he really meant was, “Oh shit.” For it was at that moment I realized he was indeed John Brennan, and he realized that I knew exactly who he was.

“How did you know where I live?,” the spy-extraordinaire asked. I was suddenly nervous, knowing this was a man who put people on kill lists. Thinking quickly, I told him I had friends in the neighborhood who gave me his address.

He asked for a business card, and I ran back to get one from the car—where Tighe was waiting. We exchange looks, OMG!

When I went back and handed the card to Brennan, he glanced at it and muttered, “Ah, CODEPINK. I thought that’s who you were.” The last time we met I was being dragged out of the Woodrow Wilson Center by a 300-pound security gorilla while yelling “Shame on you Mr. Brennan.”

I knew I didn’t have much time so I starting talking fast—telling him I had just returned from a delegation to Pakistan meeting with drone victims, how heartbroken I was to hear their stories, how terrible it is that these drone attacks are causing so much suffering to innocent people and turning the entire Pakistani population against us.

He insisted that it wasn’t true, that we weren’t harming civilians. “But we met with people who lost their children, their fathers, their loved ones—we have photos of little children….” I wanted to say so much more. I wanted to tell him about the journalist Karim Khan who lost his son and brother or about 16-year-old Tariq Aziz, who was killed when trying to document drone strikes. I wanted to talk to him about the statistics provided by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism that say conservative estimates of civilian casualties add up over 1,000.

“It’s just not true,” he repeated, dismissively. “You are being manipulated.”

By this time, the woman who joined him at the door had become very agitated. “You shouldn’t be coming to our house on a Sunday. We rarely get to see him as it is. You should talk to him in an appropriate place.”

I pleaded. “I’ve tried many times to do that, but never receive a response.” I asked for a number where I could reach him to set up a meeting, but he refused. “I have your information, I can reach you,” he claimed, waving my bright pink business card in the air.

Worried that he might be about to call in the police, or the CIA, or maybe even a drone, I finally desisted and thanked him for his time. “I want you to know, John, that I am doing this from my heart, because I care about the lives of innocent people everywhere and I care about our country.” With that, he slammed the door.

Medea Benjamin

Medea Benjamin, cofounder of CODEPINK for Peace, is the author of The Kingdom of the Unjust: Behind the US-Saudi Connection.

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10 Responses

  1. annie on November 5, 2012, 11:39 am

    fantastic medea. you’re so daring.

    “Maybe we should go to his house and talk to him,” quipped Tighe. We laughed at the absurdity of the idea but decided to do a little bit of research. Fifteen minutes later, we were out the door, driving to a Virginia suburb

    traveling with code pink, this defines what amazed me so much about their activism. sometimes all it takes a split second to go from thought to action.

    congrats on your new peace award.

    see you this weekend Celebrating 10 Years of Creative Resistance.

  2. JohnAdamTurnbull on November 5, 2012, 12:07 pm

    Ha! You and Tighe are SO BAD. Love and respect from north of 49.

  3. Mndwss on November 5, 2012, 12:16 pm

    “It’s just not true,” he repeated, dismissively. “You are being manipulated.”

    Is John Brennan a clone of Duane Clarridge?

    Justin Raimondo wrote about Duane Clarridge yesterday:

    And linked to a video where John Pilger interviews Duane Clarridge:

    Duane Clarridge Defends the Empire:

    As alike as two peas in a pod!

    • annie on November 5, 2012, 12:45 pm

      from the Raimondo link

      The Libyan government had previously been hostile to the idea of allowing foreign security companies to operate within their borders, but modified the rules by granting access to those who could find a local (presumably Libyan) partner. Blue Mountain, described by UPI as “leading the way” for foreign mercenaries in Libya, found such a partner: the Eclipse Group, according to several news accounts. However, Eclipse isn’t “local,” not by any stretch of the imagination: the Eclipse Group is Duane Clarridge’s “private CIA,” which up until recently had a $6 million DoD contract — withdrawn after Eclipse embarked on a campaign to prove Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s drug addiction. After the cut-off of Pentagon funds, Clarridge — one of the Iran-Contra defendants, indicted and later pardoned — found undisclosed “private donors” to run his gang of international cowboys. His reports, regularly issued to Pentagon insiders and journalists, have been used to target militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan: they have also been utilized by Fox News and others to “leak” information embarrassing to the Obama administration. A New York Times profile described him thusly:

      “From his days running secret wars for the C.I.A. in Central America to his consulting work in the 1990s on a plan to insert Special Operations troops in Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein, Mr. Clarridge has been an unflinching cheerleader for American intervention overseas.

      more embeds at the article. thanks Mndwess

  4. pabelmont on November 5, 2012, 12:20 pm

    Imagine his thinking he could not be found. It appears it was not even hard to find him.

    I bet he is imagining “what if somebody ELSE’s drone had his address on it!” (Even a marine guard would not help in that case.)

    American drone-meisters want to be able to kill with impunity. I don’t want them killed, I want them to stop.

  5. karendevito on November 5, 2012, 1:48 pm

    One day a heat-seeking question knocked on his door. First thought:
    “Uh-oh, the peaceniks are coming!”Well, Medea and Tighe–you certainly gave him pause. Next thought may be–who else can find me? A crack in the cognitive dissonance: “targets” of drones (sent by the “good” US) are people with homes and families.
    With admiration and respect for all you do,

  6. ritzl on November 5, 2012, 3:35 pm

    Ah, the “pastorality” of counterproductive indifference (apologies to Arendt for the paraphrase). Hell, I wonder if his grandkids have “joysticks” in the basement, or maybe better, I wonder what he teaches them about the remote-ness of policy to outcome/RL effect.

    Way to go Medea and Tighe for the juxtaposition. Deep insight in this brief exchange.


    I also wonder if, and hope beyond all hope that, you all made him think about/question, just the teensiest bit, the myopic and blinkered (in no particular order) foundation of his views.

    And last, I find it so quintessentially Beltway (or is that American?) that a visit to his home, unannounced, would strike a nerve while in his day job he rains death from above on people similarly trying to enjoy some quality time with theirs. I just don’t get the seemingly complete disconnect among people who theoretically have the capacity to embrace and resolve complex thoughts.

    Oh well. I wish I could be a fly on the wall in some of these deliberations. It’s so hard to comprehend the inputs to what appears to be, in practice, nonsensical policy.

    Again, kudos…

  7. Inanna on November 5, 2012, 6:10 pm

    I know several politicians and senior bureaucrats. One things I’ve noticed that they all have in common is this compartmentalization of their lives. I’m always amazed how they can be really nice people at home with family yet do incredibly ruthless things in their work and not be troubled by the contradiction to the point of denying it. No cognitive dissonance. Each world is separate and the realization of their ambitions justifies all sorts of things in their public life that they would be horrified at in their private life is the consequences were to fall upon themselves or their own families. John Brennan sounds like another of that species.

  8. Mac on November 6, 2012, 2:11 am

    Medea your are my heroine!

  9. douglasreed on November 6, 2012, 4:45 am

    Here we have the 2012 American version of Hannah Arendt’s ‘banality of evil’.
    ‘A middle-aged, white-haired guy in a casual sweater and jeans’ who who is irritated that someone should spoil his Sunday afternoon by raising the question of those many innocent victims of his horrific drone attacks. His wife is also perturbed, but then neither he nor she has seen the mutilated corpses, the mangled bodies and smelled the stench of death or heard the cries of screaming agony as men, women and children are blown apart, by his bombs. This is the respectable couple, to their neighbours, who are pillars of the community. But these are also a man and wife who counter the allegations of the killings of innocent families with the excuse that the accuser is being ‘manipulated’. I can just hear Hermann Goering and his co-defendants utter similar words to the judge at Nuremberg before the sentences of death by hanging were handed down …

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