ABC Botches the Brennan Hearing

TV news is often not all that informative. Sometimes that’s because the reports are so short–a few hundred words. But then there are TV reports that manage to use their short space to garble the details of a story completely.

Jonathan Karl

ABC’s Jonathan Karl

ABC correspondent Jonathan Karl‘s piece (2/7/13) about the  Senate confirmation hearing for Obama’s CIA pick  John Brennan fit into the latter category.

Karl seemed to misunderstand one part of the hearing when he told viewers this:

KARL:  It was a rare public appearance for a man who works in a windowless basement office of the White House, an architect of the president’s war on terror, especially the rapid expansion of those CIA drone strikes. It’s largely been a secret war, but Brennan promised to at least tell Congress every time the CIA targets and kills suspected terrorists.

BRENNAN: If I were to go to CIA and the CIA was involved in any type of lethal activity, I would damn well make sure that this committee had that information, absolutely.

 This would be a pretty significant development–the CIA would tell the Senate every time it kills someone?

 But that’s not what Brennan was talking about. That exchange came during questioning from Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.):

WYDEN: It’s a matter of public record, Mr. Brennan, that the raid that killed Osama bin Laden was carried out under the authority of CIA Director Leon Panetta, so that tells you right there that the intelligence community lethal authority’s been used in at least one country.

I want to hear you say that, if these authorities have been used in any other countries, you’ll provide this committee with the full list.

Now, will you give us that assurance?

BRENNAN: You’re talking about an historical list, are you not, Senator Wyden? As far as any time, anywhere that the CIA was involved in such a lethal operation?


BRENNAN: I would have to go back and take a look at that request. Certainly anything that–if I were to go to the CIA and the CIA was involved in any type of lethal activity, I would damn well make sure that this committee has that list. Absolutely.

 A historical list of countries where the CIA was using lethal force is not the same thing as telling a Senate committee every time the CIA kills a suspect. So there Karl was telling his viewers about something that didn’t happen at the hearing.

John Brennan at CSIS

John Brennan (photo: CSIS)

Karl went on to convey what he said critics of the drone program were saying about the program: 

KARL:  Critics say the administration has relied so heavily on targeted killings that they don’t even try to capture terrorists anymore. Brennan said that’s not true.

BRENNAN: That there’s not been an occasion that I’m aware of where we had the opportunity to capture a terrorist and we didn’t, and we decided to take a lethal strike.

Of all the things that the White House’s critics say about the drone program, this falls pretty far down the list; it’s more often a critique one hears from Republicans.  And it’s easily rebutted, as Brennan shows in his response.

There are other, more substantive critiques of the drone wars–which Karl chose not to mention.

Karl did engage the issue of civilian casualties:

KARL:  The drone strikes have also come under intense criticism for killing innocent bystanders, something the U.S. has never specifically acknowledged.

BRENNAN: I believe we need to acknowledge it. We need to acknowledge it publicly.

If someone is going to quote Brennan saying that there is a “need” to acknowledge civilian drone deaths, it would be helpful for viewers to know that this is the very same John Brennan who claimed (New York Times, 8/11/11)  that over the course of a year of drone strikes in Pakistan “there hasn’t been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities we’ve been able to develop.”

That claim was challenged by drone researchers who counted several dozen such casualties.  That part of Brennan’s record shouldn’t be forgotten–especially when Brennan is making claims such as this. Failing to include that context makes it sound as if Brennan expressing some sincere desire to be more transparent. His record suggests otherwise.

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.