While the Senate Intelligence Committee’s hearing tomorrow on John Brennan’s CIA nomination is not expected to be as contentious as last week’s grilling of Defense Secretary nominee Chuck Hagel, it will have one distinction: This will be the first confirmation hearing in which President Obama faces significant pressure from his own side.
Democrats, liberals and supporters of the president have been subjecting the administration to some long-deferred criticism over the use of drone strikes against Americans overseas. That’s in part thanks to the leak of a 16-page Justice Department memo [pdf] reported Monday by NBC’s Michael Isikoff. That white paper attempts to establish a legal framework for targeting “an American citizen who is a senior operational leader of al-Qa’ida,” but its nebulousness about the term “senior operational leader” and wide definition of what is considered an “imminent threat” have shaken up Obama’s own allies.
On Monday, an intelligence committee Democrat, Sen. Rony Wyden (Oregon) sent the president a letter, cosigned by 10 other Senators, demanding the release of related memos to provide a “full understanding of how the executive branch interprets the limits and boundaries” of its authority to target Americans overseas for drone strikes. Significantly, seven other Democrats signed on, along with three Republicans. Wyden has been showing skepticism about Brennan’s nomination to become director of the Central Intelligence Agency since it was announced last month.
Brennan, a former CIA station chief in Saudi Arabia, helped negotiate the installation of a drone base in the Gulf kingdom. He served as an intelligence advisor to President Clinton and was chief of staff to former CIA director George Tenet. He was considered a top pick to run the U.S. spy agency during Obama’s first term but withdrew from the running after a flurry of press attention to comments he made defending rendition of terror suspects during the George W. Bush administration, as well as his involvement with some later discredited intelligence that led to an Orange Alert in 2003.
In addition to scrutiny from Senate Democrats, Brennan’s nomination has brought increased attention to the Obama administration’s continuation and expansion of Bush-era security programs and challenges to constitutional limits on executive authority. The Open Society Justice Initiative this week issued a report [pdf] detailing how 54 countries participated in detention and extraordinary rendition since 2001.
All this has invited criticism from longtime civil libertarians and defections from many Democrats and progressives who had largely muted their own Bush-era criticisms of the national security apparatus during Obama’s first term. “We look forward to hearing the Senators question Brennan about the legal justifications used by the Obama administration to kill three Americans in Yemen,” CODEPINK co-founder Medea Benjamin wrote Tuesday in the Huffington Post, “as we are deeply concerned about their deaths and the precedent it sets for the rights of U.S. citizens.” American Civil Liberties Union official Matthew Harwood stated that Brennan “still has many questions he hasn’t answered regarding the agency’s role in torture, indefinite detention and kidnapping during his time there. And he has at least as many questions to answer about his role running the killing program in the Obama White House.” Progressive-leaning media figures have been equally harsh. “They have made the president into a sovereign,” Esquire columnist Stephan Marche wrote this morning.
This is a type of opposition Obama is not accustomed to from the left, toward a nomination the administration seems to have expected to pass with little resistance. One prominent Democrat, however, is solidly in the president’s corner. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (California) yesterday issued a statement indicating that the leaked white paper had satisfied public demands for information about the drone program. Feinstein, a national security hawk and frequent target of civil libertarians, will be holding the gavel at tomorrow’s hearing.
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