John Brennan heads to the Senate Thursday for the first step toward his
confirmation to be director of the CIA. But as the president's top
counterterrorism adviser goes under the microscope before the Senate
Select Intelligence Committee this afternoon, so will the
administration's controversial, mostly-clandestine policy of targeted,
"drone strike" killings.
WATCH: John Brennan's confirmation hearing
Brennan's nomination itself
hasn't been widely controversial: Unlike with Mr. Obama's defense
secretary nominee, former Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., and the potential
nomination of U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice to be Secretary of State, no
lawmakers have openly objected to the nomination of the long-serving
counterintelligence official, who is viewed as a close confidante of the
But as the person who has for the past four
years overseen and managed the White House's kill lists, and essentially
institutionalized the drone program itself, Brennan's nomination has
highlighted a policy that is as controversial as it is under wraps - and
a handful of senators vowed this week to use his confirmation hearings
as an opportunity to learn more about who and under what circumstances
the White House has authorized the killing of American citizens through
its drone program.
Brennan's role in the U.S. drone program has taken on a particularly renewed level of scrutiny this week: On Monday, NBC published a
confidential Justice Department memo outlining the expansive
justification with which the U.S. authorizes the use of drone strikes.
Following suit, the New York Times and the Washington Post, among other publications,
revealed the existence of a widely known but previously unreported CIA
drone base in Saudi Arabia, with which Brennan reportedly worked
House Press Secretary Jay Carney has been adamant in his defense of
both Brennan and the drone program, which he praised as "legal,"
"ethical," and "wise." And amid a chorus of senators' requests for more
information about the specific legal justifications for authorizing the
killing of Americans in the course of counterterrorism operations, a
White House official announced Wednesday evening that Mr. Obama was
directing the Justice Department to provide congressional intelligence
committees with access to classified information explaining the legal
rationale for those strikes. Even so, this issue promises to come up at
"We're expecting to get our questions answered," said Mike Saccone, a
spokesman for Sen. Mark Udall, D-Col., of today's hearing, in an
interview with CBSNews.com. Saccone said Udall has "not decided where he
is on the Brennan nomination," but that his decision is contingent on
The question of drone strikes isn't the
only controversial counterintelligence issue that's bound to get a
platform today: Lawmakers have also expressed concerns about Brennan's
position on enhanced interrogation techniques, particularly given his
high-level position at the CIA during a period when those methods were
used, and have pledged to press him for specifics about what he knew and
Brooke Sammon, a spokeswoman for Sen. Marco Rubio,
R-Fla., also cited the spate of "worrisome" national security leaks in
2012 "should be a topic for Mr. Brennan's nomination hearing," though
she declined to specify whether or not Rubio himself would ask Brennan
about subject. As for his vote, Sammon said Rubio would not "prejudge"
the nominee prior to his hearing.
In a letter to Brennan released
publicly last night, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who does not sit on the
SSIC, demanded answers to questions addressing all three issues.
there any record from this period of time of your alleged opposition to
waterboarding? If so, please identify these records," wrote McCain, a
Vietnam war veteran who was subjected to years of torture after becoming
a prisoner of war in 1967. "Do you believe that intelligence gained
from detainees who were subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques
while in CIA custody was directly responsible for the disruption of
active terrorist plots?"
senators, however, have been relatively quiet on Brennan's nomination
since its announcement: Even Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who has
objected vehemently to a number of Mr. Obama's potential cabinet picks,
only expressed lingering concerns about what happened during the Sept.
11 Benghazi attacks, noting that his "support for a delay in
confirmation is not directed at Mr. Brennan" himself. Given that Graham
has been granted yet another hearing related to Benghazi today with
outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, there's no indication
Republicans will make put up a major fight to sink Brennan's chances.
among Democrats who object to Brennan's drone policies, the hearings
will serve more as an opportunity to publicly seek information about the
secretive program than to derail the president's pick to lead the CIA,
according to Micah Zenko, of the Council on Foreign Relations, who
writes extensively on drones and U.S. counterterrorism.
will certainly be some discussion about targeted killings, but Brennan
has established positions on this policy," he said. "We'll hear what
we've heard before."
Zenko argues that while Brennan has been
"essential in codifying and institutionalizing the process of targeted
killing," he'll also be taking something of a demotion as CIA director.
"Brennan has less power at Langley than in the basement of the White
House," he said, where Brennan worked from the basement and met with the
president several times a day. "At Langley, his boss is James
Not to mention the fact that Brennan's work
during Mr. Obama's tenure has been reflective of the president's own
policies. Even if tapping Brennan to direct the CIA signals a continuity
of the administration's drone program, it would be unusual for members
of the president's own party to block a nominee who espoused his
ideology -- even if they don't like it.
"They may make
for some strange bedfellows, but I think it'll be pretty much smooth
sailing," said Max Abrahms, a fellow and international security expert
at Johns Hopkins University. "I think the reality is that drones are the
way of the future."