Advocacy vs. cheerleading

I wonder if this good news will help to convince some Democrats that hard-nosed advocacy is more effective than silent hand-wringing or wishful thinking or worst of all, mere cheerleading for Democratic rule? That demanding reform is a mark of loyalty to their principles, rather than an embrace of the opposite? That the time to raise one’s voice is before, not after, disastrous ‘compromises’ have been set in stone? That Democratic politicians respond to pressure, not to its absence?

John Brennan, the deputy to George Tenet when the CIA was forging and implementing an array of illegal practices including the Bush administration’s torture regime, a man who has since then defended and justified Bush’s rendition, detention, and interrogation policies, was being widely touted as a likely choice to head the CIA under Barack Obama. This and several other liberal blogs decried the possibility, arguing that the next administration needed to break with the past and be seen to be doing so. And voila. Today Brennan announced that he was withdrawing his name from consideration for any intelligence posts in the next administration because of the opposition he has aroused. He did not want to be a distraction, he said.

Obama’s advisers had grown increasingly concerned in recent days over online blogs that accused Brennan of condoning harsh interrogation tactics on terror suspects, including waterboarding, which critics consider torture.


His withdrawal was a concession to a political reality that Democratic activists created by concerted and principled opposition. It was not the result of an epiphany for Brennan or a sudden contrition over the positions he’s adopted. Quite the opposite, in fact.

His letter of withdrawal, available here, shows that Brennan continues to deny any responsibility for the illegal policies. He says he “was not involved” in the decisions about the policies; and that his “criticism of these policies within government circles” was the reason he was passed over for promotion by the Bush administration. Those claims cannot easily be tested, of course, since they concern opinions and behavior manifested (if at all) only behind closed doors. Brennan even asserts now that he was (always?) “a strong opponent” of “coercive interrogation tactics” tout court. It’s a claim that does not really measure up against his public statements – although Brennan later did renounce one specific technique, waterboarding. In any case, Brennan refuses to acknowledge that he was being criticized in particular for promoting and defending some of those policies after leaving the CIA. His public statements are the one arena in which we can assess his beliefs, and in that arena he looked rather shabby. Brennan can’t bring himself in his letter to admit even this much, that he needed to explain his public positions on the CIA’s legacy of controversial illegal policies.

Thus it’s clear that what led to Brennan’s withdrawal was not a sudden attack of conscientiousness. It was, instead, a concession to political reality. Activism creates such political realities.

Update: A group of 200 psychologists led by Stephen Soldz also deserve credit for sending Obama a letter opposing a Brennan appointment on the same grounds as bloggers.

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