Brennan hearing off to soft start

If not for a chamber-clearing outburst from CODEPINK protesters, you might not know that John Brennan’s CIA confirmation hearing was expected to be controversial.

Brennan, a career Central Intelligence Agency official nominated by President Obama to head the U.S. spy agency, appeared to be facing headwinds coming into his appearance before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, but the hearing so far has been marked by deference and cordiality. Most significantly, Brennan has already faced his strongest critic on committee, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), who has raised public concerns about Brennan’s involvement in the CIA’s program of drone strikes against U.S. citizens overseas.

Though Wyden complained that the Intelligence Committee had been “stonewalled” by the Agency in the past, he appeared satisfied with Brennan’s responses on a variety of intelligence questions. Brennan has repeatedly averred that his preference is to avoid lethal strikes in favor of capture and detention. When Wyden asked about the policy issues around use of strikes against U.S. citizens who are on U.S. soil rather than overseas, Brennan weaved, citing the need to “optimize transparency, while at the same time optimizing secrecy.”

Nevertheless, Wyden pronounced himself content with Brennan’s responses on use of lethal attacks — drone and otherwise — in other countries. Brennan has promised to “reach accommodation” with the Senate committee in relating details of lethal activities.

“If I were to go to CIA, and the CIA was involved in any type of lethal activity, I would damn well make sure that this committee had that information,” Brennan stated.

“That’s a good start,” Wyden replied.

A more spirited attack from the left came in the form of CODEPINK protesters who disrupted the the hearing with a series of outbursts that moved committee chairwoman Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California) to clear the chamber and suspend the hearing temporarily. A much-reduced crowd was eventually allowed back into the gallery at the Hart Senate Office Building.

From the right, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) later laid into Brennan over the release by Tunisian authorities of a suspect in the September 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi, Libya. Rubio took a sharp tone on this and other questions. Again, Brennan showed none of the hesitancy or inarticulateness that marked former Sen. Chuck Hagel’s confirmation hearings for Defense Secretary last week.

The United States he said, needs “to make sure that we are setting a standard. In terms of interrogating somebody, we need to do it so that in the future we don’t face challenges about how we obtained information.”

The hearing is still going on, but Brennan’s performance so far has gone smoothly. He has an ally in committee head Feinstein. In fact, his only gaffe so far is pronouncing the long-time Golden State senator’s last name as FeinSTEEN at the start of the hearing.