Another commencement-speaker controversy
This one hasn't gotten the attention of the Cardinal Newman Society, but there's another Catholic campus controversy you might want to know about. Fordham University's commencement speaker this year is John O. Brennan, currently Deputy National Security Advisor to the White House. Some students and faculty at Fordham have protested, circulating petitions arguing that Brennan (who served as chief of staff to CIA director George Tenet under President George W. Bush) is tied to War on Terror policies including the use of torture in ways that clearly violate the teachings of the church and the values of a Jesuit institution.
In April 2009, Scott Horton noted that Brennan had intervened to stop the Justice Department from releasing the "torture memos" written by Bush-administration advisers John Yoo, Jay Bybee, and Stephen Bradbury. "Brennan is a protege of former CIA director George Tenet," Horton wrote, "and although he expressed some reservations about waterboarding, he was a defender of other Tenet-era torture programs. Now ensconced as a senior counterterrorism advisor, he has become the principle advocate of the 'don't look back' mantra with respect to the misdeeds of the Bush years." That expression of "some reservations" makes it difficult to mount a short and sweet case against Brennan on Catholic-teaching terms. He has said that he was -- yes -- "personally...opposed" to waterboarding, as noted by the Washington Post's useful WhoRunsGov bio, but he didn't let it stop him from being part of other CIA activities that he "felt good about." The WhoRunsGov bio adds,
But Brennan has previously defended the CIA's tactics. In a 2005 interview with Jim Lehrer, Brennan called extraordinary rendition "an absolutely vital tool." Critics of the practice, which involves arresting detainees in one country and transporting them to another (often without any public notice of the arrest), charge that it is used to move suspects to countries that are willing to use torture. On CBS in November 2007, Brennan said that enhanced interrogation techniques have generated "a lot of information that the agency has in fact used against the real hard-core terrorists."
Later, Brennan started making anti-torture noises -- as in this speech from September 2011, which ended, "As a people, as a nation, we cannot -- and we must not -- succumb to the temptation to set aside our laws and our values when we face threats to our security, including and especially from groups as depraved as al-Qaida. We're better than that. We're better than them. We're Americans." As Glenn Greenwald wrote (in the course of protesting Brennan's possible appointment as CIA head under Obama), Brennan has been called a "supporter" of the CIA interrogation and detention program and credited with anti-torture views. (Andrew Sullivan: "They can't both be right.")
The petitions protesting Brennan's appearance at Fordham also call attention to his support for extrajudicial killings via drones under the current adminstration. No bishops have taken up the alarm, as far as I know. Should they? Can any politician or government official ever speak at any Catholic University? Should they?
Update (5/17): I see Franciscan University of Steubenville invited Michael Hayden, CIA head under George W. Bush, to deliver its commencement speech earlier this week. Hayden's connection to the issues that were cited regarding Brennan -- defending torture and attempting to obstruct its exposure, endorsing drone strikes that could kill civilians, and overseeing broad violations of Americans' privacy and civil liberties -- is much more direct. I wonder if there were any protests from the Steubenville student body?
About the Author
Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.