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Ray McGovern: It is a moral and legal impossibility to square “kill lists” for extrajudicial killing with traditional legal and moral American values.

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.

In a recent New York Times article, we were given a rare glimpse into the decision-making process that President Obama uses to come to decisions about who he’s going to order killed, that is, drone attacks against what are supposed to be al-Qaeda targets, and collateral damage, obviously, included.

Now joining us to talk about this one-man star chamber is Ray McGovern. Ray is a former analyst with the CIA and now very active in the antiwar movement and whistleblower movement. Thanks very much for joining us, Ray. Ray’s in Washington.


JAY: So what do you make of this extraordinary piece about Obama?

MCGOVERN: Well, it is extraordinary. And the question is, really, why the administration would cooperate in putting out the word that the kill lists, that they gathered together 100 or so of them, and they pick out people to put on the list, and then they give it to the president, and the president says, yeah, we’ll zap this guy and zap that fellow. And why would they brag about that? I think it’s symptomatic of the continuing sentiment in this country that says, well, you know, if that’s keeping us safe, you’ve got to do it, and Brennan, he’s a tough guy, so—and look, he’s a priest.

JAY: Okay. Well, tell us—a lot of people may not have read the article, so tell us who Brennan is and give us the basic picture.

MCGOVERN: Well, Brennan is—.

JAY: John Brennan, right?

MCGOVERN: John Brennan is a CIA reject. Okay? He couldn’t make it as an analyst at the CIA. And he got a job is one of the briefers down at one of the secondary levels of the White House and ran into George Tenet. George Tenet was working at the White House then, soon to become deputy director of the CIA and then director. And Brennan impressed Tenet. And knowing Tenet, you could imagine that Brennan impressed him by indicating that he would do pretty much anything Tenet said. Long story short, Tenet got back, deputy director of the agency, moved Brennan up to be chief of station in Saudi Arabia, and then back as his chief of staff, and then his deputy executive director. In other words, he moved him several rungs higher to make him one of the most influential people when Tenet was deliberately corrupting the intelligence to, quote, justify an attack on Iraq.

JAY: Okay. Let me just jump here for a sec. For people that haven’t read the Times piece, the reason we’re talking about John Brennan is Brennan is acting as a principal adviser to President Obama on who gets killed. And in the article, it talks about Brennan almost been like a priest giving a sort of moral authority for President Obama to make these kinds of decisions. So go on, Ray, with your background of John Brennan.

MCGOVERN: Well, Brennan has got this aura about him that he’s not only a tough guy but he’s a moral guy. The head State Department lawyer, Koh, says that Brennan is just an extremely scrupulous person and it’s just really terrific to have that kind of person as the last person to see the president before the president gets a whole bunch of people killed. It’s quite extraordinary. That’s—not those words, but it’s exactly what this article says.

So Brennan rules this roost here, prepares the list, and Obama says, yeah, we’ll do number one and number two, and then three and four, I suppose, move up [incompr.] So it’s extraordinary.

Now, why would the administration allow 30 of its highest officials to cooperate in this? I think they still think that Obama needs to appear tough, that he’s doing this job against terrorism and he’s making the country safe, whereas in reality this is creating more terrorists. It’s just a matter of time before this comes home to roost. Every drone that kills a family has 100 people that are sworn to avenge that family’s killing. So that’s the extraordinary irony of all this. And yet Obama, at least for the next several months, is going to appear really tough. That’s why he told his people, cooperate with The New York Times, let them tell the whole story.

JAY: So let’s—to get clear on the process, the intelligence agencies, I guess they make recommendations as to who they think are these kinds of enemies that need to be killed, and the president has—makes, essentially, the decision himself. The New York Times says how he’s taken personal responsibility for making the final decision. And then he orders these people to be killed. And they do these drone attacks knowing there’s going to be a certain amount of what they call collateral damage, which means innocent people in the area are going to be killed by the drone attack. And the president can then make this decision all on his own. But it seems like there’s kind of no due process. There’s no—any sense of judicial process of any sense. They’re just based on intelligence reports deciding such-and-such person deserves to be killed. The president’s doing it—as I said in the beginning, it’s like a star chamber: they just make their own decisions and off they go. I mean, is this—do I have this right?

MCGOVERN: It’s extraordinary. You know, George Bush, when he was asked about torture by Matt Lauer, he said, well, the lawyers said it was legal, and, you know, I depend on the lawyers, I don’t second-guess them. Well, you have the same kind of lawyers now. I call them consiglieri, sort of mafioso lawyers. And I’m talking about our attorney general, Eric Holder; I’m talking about [hoÊŠ] at State. These are people in the tradition of Ashcroft, Gonzales, Mukasey, the people that preceded them. And what they’ve said is, oh, Fifth Amendment. It says due process, but that doesn’t mean judicial process. We’ll give it due process right here in the executive branch. And Holder goes out to Northwestern Law School, explains all this, and all those budding lawyers sit around and say, oh, so due process doesn’t mean the judiciary has to become involved. Give me a break. It’s really quite remarkable. The whole—you know, the Justice Department has been corrupted to a degree I’ve never seen before. And so they say, well, from a legal point of view, go ahead and do it. Yeah.

JAY: I mean, it’s really interesting, the kind of progression of what’s being established. First of all, they’re saying if it’s outside the United States, the president essentially can order the killing of anybody he wants, and it could be an American citizen or not. There’s no issue of any kind process at all, but then the idea that, well, this only happens outside the United States. But then they add this NDAA amendment that allows indefinite detention, and now it includes in the United States and American citizens, essentially just on the authority of, again, who? On the authority of the president? They can simply say, we can detain anyone we want. So we’ve now moved inside the border. And, I guess, how big a leap is it to then say, well, maybe we can do these extrajudicial killings inside the United States as well if we think someone’s bad enough?

MCGOVERN: Well, this is Dick Cheney on steroids. It’s the executive having all the power that it wants. And, yeah, you know, I thought it was Lieberman, Graham, Lindsey Graham, Carl Levin, McCain, I thought it was that little cabal that put together this National Defense Authorization Act provision which said they could use the army to come in here into this studio, grab McGovern, send him off to Guantanamo without charge, without trial—not forever, mind you, but just until the end of the war on terror, okay? Now, the president signed that toward midnight on New Year’s Eve.

And the question is: why? It came out that it wasn’t just those senators, it was the White House that insisted that U.S. citizens be included in all this. Now, why? I think, Paul—and I said this a couple of days after. I mean, you may recall. I think they’re afraid of us. I think they’re afraid of the Occupy movement. And I think they thought that they couldn’t really depend on the Park Police of the Capitol Police or the D.C. Police or the Secret Service down in Cartagena. There aren’t enough of those. We need to be able to call in the army in case Congress and the White House gets surrounded by 80,000 people. It’s that blatant.

Now, why would Occupy grow to such numbers? It may not be coincidental that Lieberman, McCain, Lindsey Graham, Levin all share one other very important thing in common: they are incredibly pro-Israel. Now, if they anticipate that they will be successful in encouraging a war on Iran for the sake of Israel and we, our troops and so forth, incur the casualties that would be inevitable in such case, I think they fear that there could be a backlash that would dwarf all other backlashes in significance. So they want to be prepared. They know that the army has that capability.

JAY: Yeah. I mean, if there is an attack on Iran, Iran has essentially said, we’re going to strike back in every way we could—they could. And one would think that would include some kind of action inside the United States. And certainly if you’re at war with a country, it’s accepted with international law that if you’re attacked, you can counterattack, essentially, any way you can. But the broader issue is—I mean, one is if they’re preparing for war and this is essentially a kind of martial law inclusion, don’t they owe the American people that as a outright public declaration so people know what they’re deciding, which we have not heard? And number two, you know, we’re more than ten years since 9/11, there hasn’t been another attack on U.S. soil, and, apparently, existing law has been enough to deal with it. Again, no public discussion about any of this.

MCGOVERN: Well, I’m thinking not so much of an actual war where Iranians within this country would cause all kinds of mischief. I’m thinking of the families of the service men and women who would be killed in this war, stretched thin as we are. I’m thinking of the public. You know, it is time for Occupy and other people who oppose these policies to come forward and speak as the 99 percent. I think, whether or not that is a realistic prospect, that the administration is very, very worried about this, both White House and Congress, and therefore they want to be able to depend on a reliable—what we used to call in the Soviet Union organ of public security. Okay? And the only reliable one that they can think of is U.S. army. And so they have reversed 140 years of U.S. law, the Posse Comitatus Act, which was put in after the Civil War to prevent corrupt sheriffs and so forth in the South from using the army for their [incompr.] security purposes. So it’s very, very serious.

JAY: But, Ray, if there’s an attack on Iran, you cannot discount there will be a counterattack, ’cause there’s certainly a possibility of a counterattack anyway, and that counterattack could include some kind of actions within the U.S. I mean, if you’re Iran, what else are you going to do? If you want to—there is no other way to strike back. So—but—.

MCGOVERN: Oh, there’s plenty of ways, Paul. There’s plenty of ways.

JAY: What’s that?

MCGOVERN: There are U.S. troops in Afghanistan, U.S. troops all around that area that Iran has the capability and would use that capability to strike directly. I’m not ruling out terrorist attacks within the United States, but there are much more direct ways to show that Iran has the ability to, if not defend itself completely, cause [inaud.] pain by retaliation.

JAY: But I think the point I’m making is that they’re—the United States has been in war after war after war throughout the 20th century and the 21st century and there’s never been a need for this kind of legislation. Now, all of a sudden, without hardly any public discussion, the army’s going to have the ability to, as you know, pick people up, detain them. And now the president has this precedent now to go off and kill people wherever he wants. There’s been a sea change, a significant change in what seems to be considered allowable.

MCGOVERN: That’s exactly right. And it’s the old story of the boiling frog. You know, before the frog realizes how hot the temperature in that little boiling can is, he’s dead. There is no real reaction to these draconian measures, save that you find in Occupy and other people who are realizing that we are at the 99 percent, that we have to act like it. And I think that’s what they’re afraid of. It’s sort of a precautionary measure. But it does reflect the kind of fear that they feel.

JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, Ray.

MCGOVERN: You’re most welcome, Paul.

JAY: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Ray McGovern is a retired CIA officer and was employed under seven US presidents for over 27 years, presenting the morning intelligence briefings at the White House under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.