Does simply listening to someone speak necessarily mean you support them? This is a question some CMC students, including myself, confronted on Wednesday, February 5th, when the former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), John Brennan, came to campus. He met with small groups of students in two intimate sessions run by the Keck Center for International and Strategic Studies (one of which I attended), and then spoke at an off-campus “Ath on the Road” event partnered with Res Publica, a CMC alumni society. As I lined up to board the bus that would take me to Brennan’s off-campus talk, I was handed a piece of paper. I thanked the student who gave me the paper, thinking that she was affiliated with the event and was handing me an informative flyer. However, as I looked down at the leaflet in my hands and read the words “war criminal” in large red letters, I quickly realized that was not the case. I soon came to understand that she was one of two students from Pomona College who were protesting and attempting to encourage those who had signed up to boycott the event.
As we got on the bus, the two students cited statistics about Brennan’s history in the CIA, such as the 563 drone strikes Brennan approved during the Obama Administration, purportedly killing over 2000 civilians. The students said it would “mean so much to the families of the people Brennan killed” if we didn’t attend the event. One of the students even complimented my friend’s outfit, noting that Brennan “[did not deserve to have her dress up for him and support him.]” The two students claimed that we couldn’t possibly gain any value from what Brennan had to say. To my knowledge, the valiant attempts of the Pomona students were unsuccessful, and every student in line for the bus boarded.
However, I was well aware of the fact that many of my peers who were attending the talk did not support Brennan or his controversial history as a CIA director. I myself am critical of some of his decisions, and in a session at the Keck Center earlier that day, I asked him about his history of supporting extraordinary rendition of prisoners to other countries for torture. He responded that he wished he had been more outspoken against “enhanced interrogation tactics,” but that these were ultimately decisions of the Obama Administration and Congress at the time. I thought this was a bit of a cop-out, but I am glad I got the opportunity to ask the question in the first place. Regardless of the fact that Brennan took little responsibility in his response, I learned something about the CIA and the Obama Administration from it. Besides, it’s not every day you get to grill a former senior intelligence officer about torture tactics.
Similarly, the final question that was asked at the Ath event that evening, in front of a room of hundreds of students, alumni, and faculty, was highly critical. A student asked Brennan about the Panetta Review, an internal review of the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques, including waterboarding, used during the Bush Administration in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. When asked about his supposed attempts to cover up this report, Brennan began to lose the composure he had maintained throughout the entirety of his speech, and the two preceding questions. He attempted to characterize the situation as a misunderstanding, claiming that this internal review should never have been accessed by the Senate. He used the law, hierarchy, chain of command, and Senate oversight as excuses to justify the barbaric torture techniques that the review detailed and gently mocked his portrayal in the 2019 film “The Report,” which explores this situation. This question clearly condemned Brennan’s actions, and his hurried, defensive response reflected that.
As I walked out of the event hall that night, I thought back to the claims by the two Pomona students that I wouldn’t get any value out of hearing Brennan speak. It is true that I thought some of the anecdotes John Brennan told during his speech—such as one about how he wore a rainbow lanyard to work in an attempt to show his support of LGBTQ+ rights—were a bit trivial, and certainly did not distract from the brutal and controversial acts he committed while at the CIA. But I certainly learned a lot about how the CIA operated during the Bush and Obama Administrations from his speech.
The Ath is an opportunity to listen, learn, and challenge, where appropriate. Yes, the speaker always has more voice than those who ask questions at the end, but it is nonetheless an exchange. Listening and participating in a civil exchange of ideas in no way indicates support or agreement, while not listening, on the other hand, precludes debate and eliminates the opportunity to challenge. So, is John Brennan a war criminal? There are compelling arguments on both sides. But I believe I will always get more value out of hearing both sides, than from blocking out opinions which differ from my own. So I will continue to go to Ath talks hosting speakers I disagree with. I will continue to ask thoughtful questions at the end of their talks, and I will continue to challenge them if I think they deserve to be challenged. I hope other CMC and 5C students will do the same.