Why Obama would rather discuss Benghazi than drones
The White House plans to stiff Democrats and coddle Republicans to get CIA nominee John Brennan confirmed. What could possibly go wrong?
With Defense Secretary–designate Chuck Hagel's nomination under Republican filibuster at least until the Senate returns to work Feb. 25, lawmakers are turning their sights on President Obama's nominee to lead the CIA, John Brennan. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) says he will try to block Brennan's nomination until he gets more information from the Obama administration about the deadly Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya. And Democrats like Sen. Ron Wyden (Ore.) are threatening to vote against the CIA nominee unless Obama gives lawmakers access to more classified legal documents underpinning Obama's drone policy.
It seems odd at first blush, but Obama is deliberately stiffing the drone-document demands of his fellow Democrats while his team is "currently in discussions with Republican members of the Intelligence Committee about providing the trail of emails that were the basis of 'talking points' from the intelligence agencies regarding the Sept. 11 attack in Benghazi," say Scott Shane and Mark Mazzetti in The New York Times. Obama didn't have to bend much to tee up Hagel's confirmation, so why is he willing to feed the GOP obsession with Benghazi for the much-less controversial Brennan vote?
The strategy is intended to produce a bipartisan majority vote for Mr. Brennan in the Senate Intelligence Committee without giving its members seven additional legal opinions on targeted killing sought by senators and while protecting what the White House views as the confidentiality of the Justice Department's legal advice to the president. It would allow Mr. Brennan's nomination to go to the Senate floor even if one or two Democrats vote no to protest the refusal to share more legal memos. [New York Times]
Giving Republicans more Benghazi information, like that demanded by Graham, "would probably win at least some Republican votes for Mr. Brennan," say Shane and Mazzetti. Withholding the drone documents, meanwhile, won't cost Brennan the support of many Republicans — Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is an exception — and in fact may help Obama get Brennan confirmed: The drone program is as popular with Republican senators as it is with the American people, and neither group seems all that eager to know the details. In fact, Graham said Tuesday that an idea floated by his Democratic colleagues to have special judges overseeing the drone program sounds "crazy to me."
But that also suggests one of the risks of Obama's Brennan confirmation strategy: Disclosing more of the legal rationale for the drone war, even just to some senators, would be met with a yawn by most Americans while also helping to fulfill Obama's pledge of greater transparency. Meanwhile, there's no real upside in throwing more logs on the Benghazi embers. Aside from partisan Republicans, most Americans simply don't give much thought or energy to the six-month-old attack.