White House counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan will face questions about America’s expanded and unpopular drone war—including strikes that have killed U.S. citizens around the world—when he faces the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday in what is expected to be a tough hearing on his nomination to head the CIA.
Brennan, a gruff 25-year CIA veteran, will likely also be asked about the agency’s use of interrogation techniques like waterboarding that meet international definitions of torture during George W. Bush's presidency, as well as leaks of national security information under President Barack Obama. Republicans have charged that the Obama administration has disclosed sensitive information for political gain. The White House denies this.
While he is sure to face sharp questioning at the hearing, which kicks off at 2:30 p.m. EST, Brennan’s journey to confirmation is more likely to resemble John Kerry’s road to the State Department than Chuck Hagel’s tortuous path thus far as Obama's nominee to head the Defense Department.
Brennan got a bit of help late Wednesday from Obama, who directed the Justice Department to share with the Senate and House Intelligence Committees several classified memos laying out the legal rationale for drone strikes, notably those that target Americans. Some of the Senate committee’s eight Democrats and seven Republicans had suggested they might block Brennan's nomination until the administration made those documents available.
“I am going to pull out all the stops to get the actual legal analysis because without it, in effect, the administration is practicing secret law,” Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, a member of the panel, warned Wednesday before Obama's move.
The issue attracted fresh scrutiny this week when NBC News obtained and published a 16-page “white paper” giving the green light for targeting individual Americans anywhere outside the U.S. for assassination—without oversight from Congress or the courts, and even if the U.S. citizen in question is not actively plotting a specific terrorist attack.
The White House on Tuesday defended targeted assassinations as “necessary,” “ethical” and “wise.” Human rights and civil liberties groups have condemned those strikes partly because they are carried out without oversight from American courts or Congress. Other critics have warned that civilian deaths in drone strikes inflame anti-U.S. sentiment and help Islamist extremist groups recruit new members.
Brennan will also face questions about exactly when, and how, he opposed Bush administration “enhanced interrogation techniques”—practices like waterboarding that the United States used to label torture. He has said in the past that, while at the CIA, he objected to that program.
In a pre-hearing submission to the committee, Brennan said he “did not play a role in its creation, execution or oversight” and “had significant concerns and personal objections” that he expressed “privately” to colleagues at the agency. Brennan will tread carefully: He withdrew his name from consideration to head the CIA four years ago in the face of opposition from liberal groups who charged that he had not done enough to oppose such interrogations. And Republican Sen. John McCain, who survived torture as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, released a letter late Wednesday openly doubting that Brennan put up much of a fight.
Brennan will also likely face questions about the disclosure of national security information to the media. Republicans have repeatedly charged over the past four years that the Obama administration has released sensitive secrets for political gain.
In another submission to the committee, Brennan for the first time acknowledged that he had taken part in voluntary interviews with federal investigators looking into disclosures about America’s cyberwarfare against Iran and a foiled bomb plot tied to al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. Brennan said prosecutors had informed his lawyer that he is “only a witness” in both cases.