7 things we learned from John Brennan's drone-kissed confirmation hearing
The eagerly awaited showdown over President Obama's drone war didn't quite materialize, but that doesn't mean the CIA nominee didn't make news
"John Brennan isn't quite James Bond," says Brian Fung at National Journal, but President Obama's pick to head the CIA, who spent 25 years in the agency, "is a bit of a mystery man." On Thursday, the Senate Intelligence Committee had the rare chance to grill Obama's little-seen top counterterrorism adviser, and they did so with relish. In a rare moment of bipartisan agreement, senators from both parties unleashed "their anger at years of intelligence stonewalling from presidents of both parties," says Josh Gerstein at Politico. As expected, much of the focus was on the Obama administration's active drone-warfare program, which Brennan helps direct, though "many of the complaints had little or nothing to do with him." Here, seven things we learned from Thursday's hearing:
1. Brennan will probably be the next CIA chiefUnlike former Sen. Chuck Hagel, Obama's pick for defense secretary, "Brennan came well-prepared Thursday and held his own during questioning," says Pam Benson at CNN. He often chose his words carefully, but by the end of the hearing, even some Republicans were praising Brennan for his blunt, straightforward, and candid responses, both on Thursday and in previous interactions. Yes, "it seemed clear by the end of the session that Brennan had the support to be confirmed," says Politico's Gerstein, but with all the anger over Obama's secrecy, it's possible the Senate will hold up a final vote for a while.
2. Senators want more information, not an end to dronesIf you were one of those people hoping the Brennan face-off would foster "a great debate on the wisdom, legality, and morality of U.S. drone strikes," says Fred Kaplan at Slate, you're likely to have "come away from the hearings disappointed." The senators "asked Brennan plenty of questions about whether he'd give them documents about drone strikes and other practices if he's confirmed as CIA director — but they asked very few about the practices themselves." In fact, for all the concerns over congressional oversight and other safeguards, "no one on the committee said they were opposed to the drone program — and some came to its defense," says Politico's Gerstein. So if there was any doubt, it appears "drones are here to stay."
3. A special court for drone strikes is on the tableIntelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) did say she's considering a push to create a new court to oversee the targeted killings, along the lines of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court that Congress created to oversee eavesdropping on American soil. "Having the executive be the prosecutor, the judge, the jury, and executioner all in one is very contrary to the traditions and the laws of this country," agreed Sen. Angus King (I-Maine). Brennan said the Obama administration has "wrestled" with that idea, and it's "certainly worthy of discussion," but was otherwise pretty noncommittal.
4. Brennan strongly insists he doesn't leak intelligenceOne of the testiest exchanges on Thursday came when Republicans on the panel accused Brennan of leaking classified information to the press, focusing on a May 2012 story about a foiled Yemen-based plot to blow up U.S.-bound airliners. That leak, under investigation by the FBI, included reports about a U.S. double agent inside the al Qaeda-linked plotters. Noting that Brennan told a TV commentator that the U.S. had "inside control" of the operation, Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho) charged, "It seems to me that the leak the Department of Justice is looking for is right here in front of us." Brennan visibly bristled, saying he "vehemently" rejected Risch's accusation and disclosed that he has already spoken with federal prosecutors and was informed that he is a witness and not a target of the investigation. Authorized leaks, he added at another point, are an "oxymoron."
5. He opposed waterboarding, but is unsure whether it's effectiveWhen the CIA started using waterboarding and other "enhanced interrogation techniques" after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Brennan was the deputy to the No. 3 official at the agency. After leaving the CIA, he said in 2007 that waterboarding had produced intelligence that saved lives, but Brennan said Thursday that after reading a classified new Senate Intelligence Committee report on the CIA's interrogation program, he now has "serious questions about the information that I was given at the time." He resisted Democrats' invitations to describe waterboarding as "torture," saying that term has legal implications, but called the practice "reprehensible" and "something that should not be done." When Republicans asked him why, then, he didn't try to stop it when he was in the CIA's leadership, Brennan said he had shared his misgivings with unidentified colleagues but wasn't in the right "chain of command" to influence the program.
6. Brennan also opposed a plan to capture Osama bin LadenSen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), the top Republican on the committee, asked Brennan about a report that in the late 1990s, when Brennan was CIA station chief in Saudi Arabia, he had urged the Clinton administration to abandon an operation to capture the al Qaeda leader. Brennan said the story is true. "Based on what I had known at the time," he said, "I didn't think it was a worthwhile operation and had low chances of success." It wasn't his call to make, Brennan added, but he doesn't regret his advice to call off the bin Laden raid. The "chances of success were minimal," and the odds were that "other individuals were going to be killed."
7. Code Pink is an equal-opportunity protest machineIn case you thought the peace activist group known for its pink shirts and tactical use of disruption was a Bush-era phenomenon, Brennan's hearing was suspended after the first few minutes of his opening statement to clear the hearing room of Code Pink protesters. "Assassination is against the Constitution!" one man yelled, while a woman held up a sign that read, "Drones Fly Children Die." After the hearing resumed, with most of the audience cleared out, Brennan said the protesters, and the public in general, doesn't understand "the care that we take and the agony that we go through to make sure that we do not have any collateral injuries or deaths." The use of drones, he said, is a last resort to stop terrorist attacks, not "punish terrorists for past transgressions." Feinstein said she has tried to defend the drone program by disclosing the "single digit" annual civilian death toll but is told she can't speak of it because the much-discussed drone program is classified and, as far as the public is concerned, doesn't exist. "Well, I think that rationale, Mr. Brennan, is long gone." Brennan agreed.