Brennan’s Ordeal: The Beginning of the End

John Brennan's confirmation for CIA chief has prompted some interesting debate about counter-terrorism and the use of drones. While that debate has only skimmed the surface, Congress is nearly finished with it, at least for now.

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Tom Williams / Roll Call / Getty Images

John Brennan, nominee to be Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, poses for a picture on Jan 31, 2013.

The Senate Intelligence Committee voted 12-3 yesterday to approve John Brennan’s nomination to be CIA director. That’s no great surprise, nor is his fate before the full Senate terribly suspenseful. A few Republican Senators, notably including the amigos John McCain and Lindsey Graham, may yet delay a final vote, as they did with Chuck Hagel, as leverage to force the Obama White House to cough up more details about how the president handled the attack in Benghazi. But it’s hard to see Brennan failing to reach Langley by the end of the month.

That’s partly because the holdup wasn’t really about Brennan at all. The main reason for the Senate Intelligence Committee’s delay in voting out Brennan’s nomination was the demand by a handful of Senators to see White House legal memos justifying the killing by drone of American citizens. (Some Republicans also insisted on more detail about Benghazi.) The real issue was a question of process and Congressional oversight, not whether Brennan’s vision for the CIA is a wise one.

And to the extent there has been a sustained and substantive objection to the counter-terror policies Brennan has overseen at the White House, it has revolved around the exceedingly narrow issue of the government’s ability to drone a U.S. citizen. As Scott Shane writes in the New York Times:

Only one American, the radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who had joined the Qaeda affiliate in Yemen, has been deliberately killed in a strike, in September 2011. At least three other Americans killed in strikes in Yemen were not the intended targets, officials have said.

While [Intelligence Committee chairwoman Dianne] Feinstein has sought legal opinions governing strikes targeting non-Americans, they are still being withheld by the administration, which views them as confidential legal advice to the president. As a result, the detailed legal rules for a vast majority of drone strikes, including so-called signature strikes aimed at suspected militants whose identities are unknown, remain secret.

John Brennan’s confirmation has prompted some interesting debate about counter-terrorism and the use of drones. But that debate has only skimmed the surface. And it appears that Congress is nearly finished with it, at least for now.

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