A drone programme without review is incompatible with democracy. The recommendation by US President Barack Obama of national security adviser John Brennan as CIA director ought to be of concern to all who value democracy. Not that Brennan lacks basic qualifications. His 25 years with the CIA give him that. The Senate hearings on his confirmation tell another story, one of reticence to deal with torture, and of apparent eagerness to use drones to kill not only foreign enemies but US citizens.
The CIA itself has undergone a transformation over the past decade from an intelligence-gathering organisation - spying, to put it bluntly - to an operational paramilitary organisation. Those operations include kidnappings, "renditions", torture and assassinations. Ordinarily the work of intelligence agencies consists in collection of mountains of data and subjecting those mountains to analysis. Conclusions freighted with degrees of certainty are then provided to the executive for judgment and potential action. It's tedious work, not at all sexy, more George Smiley than James Bond.
Politicising that intelligence function after 9/11 provided the dubious rationale for Bush and Blair to invade Iraq. Then these governments turned away from fox work to become the hedgehogs of the Dick Cheney stripe, and moved into what Cheney called "the Dark Side". Bush and Cheney have openly acknowledged their authorisation of torture, relying upon flimsy justifications provided in memos by the compliant Office of Legal Counsel, Department of Justice, with the odious euphemism, "enhanced interrogation techniques".
Brennan is a left-over from that period. He admits he knew about water-boarding, a technique he now describes as "reprehensible" but refuses to describe as "torture". He claims to have given his reservations in private, but felt he had no other duty, as he did not have direct authority. This view of himself as the metaphorical "good German" fails the simplest moral test. Neither the perpetrator nor the bystander can escape responsibility.
Mr Brennan has more recently been especially associated with the drone programme. Begun under the Bush regime, the programme targeting terrorist suspects has been elaborated under Obama, and Brennan is reported to pick the targets.
While Obama repudiated the infamous "torture memos" in 2009, he has nevertheless relied on extremely similar legal argument in authorising lethal force not only against al-Qaeda combatants in Afghanistan or in Yemen but also against American citizens deemed to pose an "imminent threat". A version of the legal documents leaked to MSNBC argues that if an "informed, high-ranking official" decides that an American citizen poses an "imminent threat" to that country and that capture is deemed not possible, it's OK to order a drone strike.
That is where Mr Brennan came in, and his appointment to head the CIA could only signal the administration's intention to rely more on the paramilitary side of the CIA, with consequent lesser focus on the tedium of intelligence-gathering and analysis.
During the last electoral campaign, Obama quite properly called out his opponent Mitt Romney for his refusal to publish details of his taxes and to amplify with facts his claim that he, Romney, knew how to fix the economy. The Democrats pointed out that Romney's campaign boiled down to three words: Just trust me. The voters were not persuaded, and now it's Obama's turn on the subject of targeted killings, for which Brennan has been chiefly responsible.
Obama's claim, like that of Bush in his justifying of torture or warrantless eavesdropping or limitless detention of prisoners, rests on an extension of powers claimed by Congress' authorisation for use of force after 9/11. He has not set forth his reasoning to the people.
Power once exerted is unlikely to be given up. The precedent Obama claims is of the unfettered authority of the executive over human life, without prior due process or subsequent review, turning 224 years of US history on its head. The danger to democracy is evident. If war is too complicated to be left to the generals, so democracy is too fragile to be left to politicians. Trust without oversight is untenable.