Longtime CIA official John Brennan adroitly handled the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Thursday in the only open hearing around his nomination as director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
The nominee for Director of the Central Intelligence Agency appeared well prepared, knowledgeable and smooth. He is scheduled for a closed-door hearing next week, and Thursday’s hearing was the public’s only opportunity to see the prospective U.S. spy chief under oath.
Brennan’s strongest critic on the committee, Sen. Ron Wyden (R-Ore.), has been skeptical of Brennan’s nomination and has demanded the release of 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.
In response to Wyden’s request for clarity around use of strikes against U.S. citizens who are on U.S. soil rather than overseas, Brennan cited the need to “optimize transparency, while at the same time optimizing secrecy.” Brennan also 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 emotional thrust came from Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida), who pressed Brennan on the release of Benghazi attack suspect Ali Harsi. Harsi was detained by Tunisian authorities but released for lack of evidence. (He is required to stay in the greater Tunis area, according to his lawyer.) Rubio pointed to Harsi’s release to state that the CIA does not have “a very good system of working with our foreign partners.” Brennan countered that the U.S. also had insufficient grounds for holding Harsi.
Brennan has faced criticism from conservatives over some apparently accommodating references to the concept of “jihad” he has made in the past, as well as questions around the CIA’s work after the lethal September 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
Brennan has faced even stronger attacks from the left. Democrats, liberals and supporters of the president have subjected the administration to long-deferred criticism over the use of drone strikes against Americans overseas.
A few days before Thursday’s hearing, NBC’s Michael Isikoff revealed a 16-page Justice Department memo that was apparently leaked by an intelligence committee member. 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” shook up Obama’s own allies.
Civil rights groups and others want to evaluate the memo to understand the White House claim that ‚??it has the right to kill American citizens abroad without following legal procedures,‚?Ě as the Wall Street Journal put it.
In fact, the release of the white paper itself, which contained some details about the U.S. drone base in Saudi Arabia, seemed to suggest a fraying of the president’s support. Both the New York Times and the Washington Post, which reported key details about Bush administration counterterrorism efforts, acknowledged that they had not released details about this base at the request of the Obama administration.
Civil rights groups and others want to evaluate the memo to understand the White House claim that it has the right to kill American citizens abroad without following legal procedures, as the Wall Street Journal put it.
But in the hearing room at the Hart Senate Office Building, the only evidence of discontent from the left came in the form of CODEPINK protests that briefly disrupted the hearing and prompted Feinstein to clear the chamber.
Brennan, a former CIA station chief in Saudi Arabia, served as an intelligence adviser to President Clinton and was chief of staff to former CIA director George Tenet. He was considered a top pick to run the 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.
Brennan also was involved in a controversy surrounding his private-sector work in the middle of the last decade. Between stints at the CIA, Brennan served as president and CEO of Analysis Corp. A State Department investigation later revealed that an Analysis Corp. employee had in 2008 improperly accessed the passport files of presidential candidates Obama, Hillary Clinton and John McCain.
This topic did not come up in the hearing, nor did anything else related to Brennan’s sojourn in the private sector. When Human Events asked Feinstein about the passport files after the hearing, she professed not to have heard about the matter.