Senate Democrats are pressing for a vote on John Brennan’s nomination as CIA director as soon as today, a day after the Obama administration shored up support by letting lawmakers see legal opinions justifying drone strikes against U.S. citizens suspected of al-Qaeda ties.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said he is seeking agreement with Republicans to hold the vote as soon as today in return for requiring a 60-vote supermajority to act on the confirmation. He also took procedural action to force a final vote no later than March 9.
Some Republicans have threatened to hold up the confirmation, and Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky said today he objects to a speedy vote on Brennan because of the prospect that drones could be used someday to attack U.S. citizens on American soil. Attorney General Eric Holder wrote Paul that he couldn’t rule out doing so under “an extraordinary circumstance.”
The Senate intelligence committee voted 12-3 behind closed doors yesterday to recommend that Brennan take charge at the Central Intelligence Agency, where he worked as an analyst and clandestine officer for 25 years. The panel’s eight Democrats and four of its seven Republicans favored Brennan’s appointment, according to Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who heads the committee.
“John was straightforward with the committee, answering all of our questions, and I believe he will be a candid partner at CIA and a strong leader of that critically important agency,” Feinstein said. She said Brennan clearly has enough support in the full Senate to be confirmed.
Brennan currently serves as President Barack Obama’s counterterrorism adviser and is an architect of the administration’s policy of using drones for targeted strikes against suspected terrorists. The committee acted hours after the administration agreed to let members of the panel see classified Justice Department documents on drone attacks.
Some committee members, led by Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, had threatened to hold up Brennan’s nomination until they could see all of the legal opinions on the matter. Wyden has said he questioned “the president’s authority to kill Americans.”
The radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen, and his 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman, who was born in Denver, were killed in suspected drone strikes in Yemen in 2011.
Call for Debate
The additional information brought a statement of support for Brennan’s confirmation from Wyden, Democrat Mark Udall of Colorado and Republican Susan Collins of Maine.
“In our view, the appropriate next step should be to bring the American people into this debate” on drones “and for Congress to consider ways to ensure that the president’s sweeping authorities are subject to appropriate limitations, oversight, and safeguards,” the senators said in a statement.
Senate confirmation of Brennan’s nomination would round out Obama’s second-term national security team. John Kerry was confirmed as secretary of state on a 94-3 vote on Jan. 29. Chuck Hagel was approved as defense secretary on a 58-41 vote on Feb. 26. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, has said he hopes the full Senate will vote on Brennan’s confirmation this week.
Brennan’s nomination has attracted more controversy than Kerry’s and far less than Hagel’s bruising confirmation fight.
If confirmed, Brennan would take over from Michael Morell, the CIA’s deputy director, who has been leading the agency on an acting basis since David Petraeus resigned in November after admitting to an affair with his biographer.
Brennan, 57, joined the CIA in 1980. He performed clandestine and analytical work with the agency, including several years in Saudi Arabia, and was director of the National Counterterrorism Center in 2004 and 2005. He left the government in 2005 and joined the Analysis Corp., a national security contractor based in McLean, Virginia, as president and chief executive officer.
When Obama was elected in 2008, Brennan was considered as a potential nominee to head the CIA. He withdrew from consideration after human-rights groups and some Democrats raised concerns that he had supported, or at least acquiesced in, the use of harsh interrogation techniques in the fight against terrorism that critics consider torture -- including waterboarding, which simulates drowning and was banned by Obama.
Brennan was named assistant to Obama for homeland security and counterterrorism, a post not requiring Senate confirmation.
At Brennan’s confirmation hearing on Feb. 7, senators challenged him about administration leaks of classified information to journalists, the interrogation issue and the drone policies. The White House has pursued the drone program with limited oversight by Congress or the courts.
Brennan called waterboarding “reprehensible,” and said he now has “serious questions” about its effectiveness. He said a review of the interrogation program would be his “highest priority” if confirmed.
He defended the Obama administration’s decision-making process about the use of drones, and pledged to ensure that all actions are legal and “that we do everything possible before we need to resort to lethal force.”
Brennan also called cyber attacks “one of the most insidious, one of the most consequential” threats to U.S. national security.
Paul said today on the Senate floor that he objects to a speedy vote and is prepared to talk for hours about his concern that the administration might one day use drones against American citizens located in the U.S.
Obama “will be the executioner-in-chief if he sees fit,” said Paul, a Tea Party-backed lawmaker who favors limited government. A drone attack could kill an innocent American who’s in a cafe or walking down the street, he said.
Paul had asked the administration to explain whether it believes it has the legal authority to order drone attacks on U.S. citizens on American territory.
In a March 4 letter, Holder responded that such domestic use of drones is “entirely hypothetical, unlikely to occur and one we hope no president will ever have to confront.”
Holder said he couldn’t rule it out under an “extraordinary circumstance.” He cited the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks as examples.
In addition to Paul’s questions on drones, Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, has continued to press his demands for more information about the administration’s handling of the Benghazi attack, in which Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, was among those killed.
Graham said March 3 on CBS’s “Face the Nation” that information produced so far by the administration is inadequate. Feinstein said that the administration is providing more. Tate Zeigler, a Graham aide, didn’t respond to phone and e-mailed requests for comment.