Controversial CIA chief is now on Fordham’s payroll
By Maria Byrne and Kyle Zarif
Staff Distinguished Fellows
On September 4th, Fordham announced in an email that former CIA Director John Brennan was appointed as “Distinguished Fellow for Global Security at the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School.” In this role, Brennan would be tasked with mentoring students who aspired to work within America’s vast and expanding national security apparatus. Brennan served for nearly 30 years in the CIA, leading the agency under President Obama. As Brennan will be imparting his particular experience onto students in the form of objective knowledge on Global Security, it is worth examining just what that experience is and what type of knowledge Brennan has accrued from it.
During the second Bush administration, Brennan worked as the CIA’s deputy director while the agency undertook an international program of torture and illegal detention of terror suspects in direct violation of the Third Geneva Convention. The agency repeatedly attempted to argue that the Convention did not apply to terror suspects, as they were nonstate actors fighting an unconventional war. In turn, the US refused to implement the Third Geneva Convention until 2007. After the Bush years, when the American public was more critical of its government’s torture of terror detainees, Brennan repeatedly defended the use of illegal black site prisons in various countries and detention of terror suspects without charge. More recently, he defended the agency in the wake of the Senate Report on Torture, claiming torture provided “some useful information”.
Brennan showed a continued ambivalence towards the tenets of international law in his career as CIA Director under President Obama. During this period, Brennan helped design the administration’s drone program, which led to the targeted and illegal assassinations of anyone the agency determined to be a grave enough security threat. Brennan also helped create the list of approved assassination targets, a process which remains confidential, circumventing due process and international legal norms. The program has also resulted in disproportionately high civilian deaths in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, Libya, and Afghanistan. Brennan continues to assert the drone program’s morality and efficiency, claiming civilian casualties are “extremely rare.” However, internal documents leaked by the Intercept in 2015 revealed that 90% of total drone related deaths in Yemen and Somalia were not the intended target, estimating 264 deaths of CIA-designated civilians, without counting Pakistan, Libya, and Afghanistan. This number is almost certainly higher, however, as the same Intercept investigation revealed that the majority of drone deaths were retroactively attributed to “enemy combatants,” with the CIA serving as a sort of post-mortem jury, judge, and executioner.
The issue of Fordham Law offering John Brennan a position falls into a larger pattern of the American military industrial complex usurping academia. In a post-9/11 America, it comes as little surprise that the university has increased its ties with the Pentagon. While this may not seem intrinsically evil to most Fordham students, and proponents of military research in academia advocate for its creation of new technologies, there are likewise several red flags about this subtle but apparent trend. For example, on September 15, Harvard announced that they had decided to revoke Chelsea Manning’s invitation to become a Visiting Fellow–while still extending invitations to members of the Trump administration, including Sean Spicer. Manning’s disinvitation was widely seen as a response to CIA director Mike Pompeo’s letter to Harvard criticizing Manning as a “traitor to the United States of America”. These emerging ideologies and practices of militarization, corporatism, and right-wing fundamentalism normalize the government’s agenda and ultimately have the potential to compromise critical thought, while also causing a lack of transparency from the general public.
Furthermore, Fordham has a tense history with the military industrial complex. The Vietnam War drove a wedge between Fordham military-funded programs and the rest of the student body. President Nixon was supposed to speak at Rose Hill in 1969, but students led a protest and sit-in creating a barrier for the route his car would have taken onto campus, forcing his speech to be canceled. The Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) of Fordham additionally threatened to block air force personnel from recruiting on campus and organized protests demanding Fordham admit more African American students and other minorities. When Fordham threatened to deny financial aid to students participating in conflicts, protests became even more tense and violent, and students demanded that ROTC to not be allowed to promote itself on campus. But while Fordham students have historically countered similar university decisions, it seems that the recent appointment of John Brennan to the law school has fallen on deaf ears.
Brennan fits into an interesting trend of members of the national security apparatus being given honorary positions at universities: Condoleezza Rice became a political science professor at Stanford following her involvement in the Bush Administration, Janet Napolitano became the president of the University of California, etc. In 2015, faculty and students gathered in Fordham Faculty Against Torture, calling on the university to revoke his honorary degree and McMahon Award. Dr. Jeannine Hill Fletcher, Professor of Theology and organizer of the Fordham Faculty Against Torture campaign said the following of Brennan’s recent appointment: “As a theologian, I am called by the tortured Christ to interrogate the ways we continue to crucify others in the name of our own safety and salvation. Thus, I continue to have concerns about the ways that practices of national security eclipse our common humanity.” We as members of a national academic community and a local one at Fordham are veering towards this “agenda-ed” ideology dominated by a heavily militarized and self-interested government. Their profit-saturated thinking along with the planning of strategic policy through funded research and government appointed positions arguably threatens the integrity of academia as a public space where moral authorities and nationalism can be questioned. Students and faculty at Fordham who value an open intellectual community should ask themselves whether Brennan’s experience and knowledge is worth compromising Jesuit values of openness and critical thought.