John Brennan, the CIA director and the man largely responsible for the U.S.’s drone strategy, is so influential that some Pentagon officials have taken to calling him the “Deputy President.” In an exclusive interview, GQ’s Reid Cherlin talks to Brennan about the ethics of targeted killing, the next global arms race (get ready for everybody to have their own drones), and what it feels like to be the guy the president turns to when he wants a bad guy blown away:
GQ: One of the main criticisms against the program is that we’re delegitimizing the friendly governments who are letting us do this.
JB: We’re very cognizant that these types of programs have the potential, and reality, of backlash. And we need to be very mindful of that. You know, the example of Yemen. It’s astounding how many Yemenis have died at the hands of Al Qaeda. AQAP have crucified Yemenis. They have beheaded them. They have disemboweled them. So President Hadi and others are saying, ‘We need help against this cancer within our country here.’ And we’re trying to do this in a manner that does not lead to any type of backlash against us or the government. So it’s striking that proper balance.
I just had an hour-and-a-half meeting on Yemen, an interagency meeting with senior officials from throughout the government. Never once in that 90-minute meeting did we talk about a drone shot, or a kinetic strike [the government’s term of art—kinetic—for blowing things up]. We talked about what we need to do to encourage and enhance the national dialogue that’s taking place, the economic assistance taking place, the capacity-building—doing the types of things that we need to do for Yemen. And so unfortunately, when people talk about, you know, they think we rely on drones to effect change in these countries, that it’s over-reliance on them. Well no! It’s a small part of it.
GQ: But people aren’t seeing these as strikes of last resort. They’re seeing that strikes just lead to more strikes. I talked to Peter W. Singer, a drones expert at the Brookings Institution, who told me that some officials think of the program as “mowing the lawn.”
JB: There are a lot of people who talk about these issues very callously, on the outside. Because they’re not a part of it. And it’s easy for people to criticize, to lay blame…Sometimes you need to take these types of kinetic actions, because you’re trying to give these other efforts time and space. And if we don’t arrest the growth of Al Qaeda in a Yemen, or a Mali, or a Somalia, or whatever else, that cancer is going to overtake the body politic in the country, and then we’re going to have a situation that we’re not going to be able to address.