It’s not often that a confirmation hearing begins with the suspense surrounding John Brennan’s appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee Thursday. Brennan is President Barack Obama’s trusted White House counter terrorism advisor and his nominee to lead the CIA; more colloquially, he is the chief architect and overseer of the Obama era war against al-Qaeda. And while anticipation may have run high last week during Chuck Hagel’s grilling over Iran and Israel, that was nothing compared to the talk that Brennan’s turn in the spotlight will be the setting for an unforgettable debate about life and death, the difference between legal killing and murder, with a rousing discussion of torture to boot.
Why such tension? Recent disclosures timed for Brennan’s hearing have told us little that’s new about Obama’s prosecution of the war on terror. A leaked Justice Department white paper outlining the legal basis for killing an American citizen working with al-Qaeda made for fascinating reading. But it didn’t say much that wasn’t already known about how this White House (and the one before it, for that matter) views its power to hunt and kill terrorists. The fact that drone strikes may instill dangerous anti-Americanism across the Muslim world — potentially spawning more terrorists than they kill — is getting renewed attention. But it’s a years-old debate. And that New York Times disclosure about a drone base in Saudi Arabia that several news outlets had agreed to keep secret? The base had been previously reported. And if you don’t know that the Saudis are our most important Arab allies in the war against al-Qaeda, you’re not paying attention.
There’s no reason why John Brennan’s CIA confirmation hearing has to be the place to hash out these questions. Congress has been free to do so at anytime. But Congress has also shown virtually no appetite under Obama for interfering with his prosecution of the anti-terror war: Republicans like a merciless drone campaign, even if it requires some tricky legal reasoning. Democrats want to support their president (and who can complain about a guy who got bin Laden?). No wonder the 2012 campaign featured no serious discussion of our reliance on drones or whether any other limits should be imposed on the ongoing fight against al-Qaeda.
It is true that some members of Congress are growing impatient with the drone war. Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat, has been demanding since the 2011 killing of the American-born al-Qaeda cleric Anwar al-Awlaki to know how Obama justified the execution-by-drone of an American citizen. But Wyden’s testy Jan. 14 letter to Brennan doesn’t even even assert that Obama lacked the authority to kill al-Awlaki. Instead, Wyden insisted that withholding those legal opinions “represents an alarming and indefensible assertion of executive prerogative” and demanded to see them. (On Wednesday the White House agreed to show its legal memos, which are more detailed than the leaked DOJ paper to the Intelligence Committee, in advance of the hearing.)
While Wyden and others may well have some tart words for Brennan, the hearing is unlikely to become a pile-on. As Micah Zenko at the Council on Foreign Relations notes, the Intelligence Committee’s Democratic chairwoman, Senator Diane Feinstein of California, is a national security hawk and defender of executive authority. It is the case however that Feinstein is notably less-hard line on another key issue: torture. She recently oversaw the completion of a classified 6,000 page committee report on the Bush-era CIA’s use of torture, which she has suggested contains a damning verdict. Might she and other Democrats grill Brennan on the topic? Brennan was, after all, reportedly aware of the CIA’s torture activities when he was a senior agency official in the mid-00s, although he has since disavowed the practice. But as with drones, a kind of undeclared truce has prevailed on the question. Obama banned torture upon taking office, and declined to hold Bush officials accountable for “enhanced interrogation.” Democrats haven’t seriously challenged him. And while many Republicans still believe that certain forms of torture—or practices they don’t feel should be defined as torture—are acceptable, they haven’t pressed the issue, either. (This despite the fact that the public is at best divided on torture.) At the moment, torture is a settled issue, and neither side has much to gain by pressing Obama’s nominee on the question.
There are plenty of other important questions that can be put to a CIA nominee. Former agent, and TIME.com intelligence columnist, Bob Baer’s suggestions range from China to North Korea to—oh, yeah!—good old-fashioned intelligence collection. But bear in mind that on many of these subjects—and on drones above all—Brennan will likely duck behind a shield of classification. There’s a reason the Senate Intelligence Committee rarely holds hearings in an open public session, after all.
(TIME COVER: Rise of the Drones)
“Senators may get political points for asking about the CIA’s drone program, but they sure aren’t going to get answers,” says Amy Zegart, a former national security council staffer and a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. “If I were a gambling woman, I’d bet big money on the number of times Brennan says, ‘I’m happy to discuss this in closed session.’” The most anticipated confirmation hearing in recent memory may end up being among the least satisfying.