John Brennan was sworn in by Vice President Joe Biden as the new director of the CIA and he did it in a way that I would ordinarily support a lot: He put his hand on the constitution rather than the Bible. But as Marcy Wheeler points out, there was some appropriate symbolism here:
According to the White House, John Brennan was sworn in as CIA Director on a “first draft” of the Constitution including notations from George Washington, dating to 1787…
That means, when Brennan vowed to protect and defend the Constitution, he was swearing on one that did not include the First, Fourth, Fifth, or Sixth Amendments — or any of the other Amendments now included in our Constitution. The Bill of Rights did not become part of our Constitution until 1791, 4 years after the Constitution that Brennan took his oath on.
I really don’t mean to be an asshole about this. But these vows always carry a great deal of symbolism. And whether he meant to invoke this symbolism or not, the moment at which Brennan took over the CIA happened to exclude (in symbolic form, though presumably not legally) the key limits on governmental power that protect American citizens.
This doesn’t change anything substantively, of course; it’s not as if swearing an oath on the Bill of Rights would have prevented Brennan from violating them. But as a symbol, it’s probably worth noticing. This whole thing has been appalling to me. The real opposition to Brennan came from the left (though the loony right invented a bizarre claim that Brennan had converted to Islam and was a double agent for Bin Laden), but that had almost no impact on the Democrats in Congress.
And I’m seeing so many blog posts and Facebook memes about Rand Paul’s filibuster of the nomination that miss the point completely. So many people think it’s all about whether Obama is a “dictator” or whether he’s going to use drones to take out his critics. None of that is even remotely relevant to the real issue, nor is the fact that Rand Paul is both wrong and loathsome on many other issues. The real question is what power does the president have to kill without due process, by any means at all?
Remember, this is a president who claims the authority to kill American citizens abroad who are not engaged in combat against the country, with no judicial oversight whatsoever, no trial, no need to even show the evidence against that person to anyone other than himself. And who refuses to even tell Congress or the public what legal basis he thinks he has for that authority. And whose attorney general said that if Congress were to pass a law saying he has no authority to kill an American citizen inside this country without due process, that would violate the president’s inherent Article II power.
Given all of that, people damn sure better be asking questions and trying to put safeguards on that virtually unlimited claim of power. And I don’t care whether it’s being said by someone who is wrong on virtually everything else or who is a hypocrite. The fact that he was the only one saying it speaks louder than anything else. If Dennis Kucinich was still in Congress, he would have been saying the same thing. I bet Russ Feingold would too. But the other allegedly pro-civil liberties Democrats in the Senate, like Ron Wyden, just folded on this one. Why? Because they’re from the same political party as the president who claims that authority.
The same is true of the Brennan nomination in general. Brennan was up to his eyeballs in the Bush torture regime, as both participant and apologist. He was the architect of the drone bombing program. He’s also had his hand in the NSA’s data mining program. He’s been a staunch opponent holding anyone in the intelligence community responsible for their crimes. Liberals should be unanimously opposed to this guy having anything to do with our intelligence operations. Yet only two Democrats in the Senate (Leahy and Merkley) voted against him.
If Brennan had been nominated by a Republican president to head the CIA (and there’s no reason why he would not be), there would have been at least some token opposition by Democrats, though not enough to block it. And most of those 31 Republicans who voted against Brennan this time (excluding Rand Paul) would have been cheering him on and hammering those few Democrats who voted no as America-hating leftists. Because party affiliation means so much more than principle or the rule of law.
The only saving grace here is that liberal intellectuals like Glenn Greenwald, Marcy Wheeler and the ACLU have remained consistent in their opposition to this vast expansion of federal power, no matter which party holds the White House. But for the overwhelming majority of our elected officials, doing the politically expedient thing always trumps doing the right thing.