Senate Confirms Brennan as CIA Director Amid Drone Debate

The U.S. Senate confirmed John Brennan as CIA director, making a 25-year veteran of the intelligence agency its leader and rounding out President Barack Obama’s second-term national security team.

Approval on a 63-34 vote yesterday came after a debate dominated by the Obama administration’s use of drone attacks, especially against Americans suspected of terrorist ties.

Lawmakers on the Senate intelligence committee won access to classified administration legal opinions on the subject. Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky said he got assurances that the administration wouldn’t use the pilotless planes against Americans on U.S. soil unless they posed an immediate terrorist threat.

Brennan, 57, will take over from Michael Morell, the Central Intelligence Agency’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.

“Our extraordinary men and women of the CIA will be led by one of their own,” Obama said in a statement after the Senate vote. “Timely, accurate intelligence is absolutely critical to disrupting terrorist attacks.”

Brennan assumes control of the secretive agency as it faces challenges, from the U.S. government budget cuts called sequestration to a shortage of covert agents who have the language and cultural skills to collect intelligence on the ground as terrorist groups splinter and spread from Pakistan and Iraq to Yemen and Mali.

Drone Debate

Brennan has been serving as Obama’s counterterrorism adviser and is an architect of the administration’s policy of using drones for targeted strikes against suspected terrorists.

Paul spoke on the Senate floor for more than 12 hours, filibustering to demand assurances that the administration would never use drones in the U.S. against an American who wasn’t about to commit a terrorist act. Yesterday, he said he secured such a promise in “a major victory for American civil liberties.”

Paul cited a letter he received from Attorney General Eric Holder.

“It has come to my attention that you have now asked an additional question: ‘Does the President have the authority to use a weaponized drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on American soil?’” Holder wrote. “The answer to that question is no.”

‘Ridiculous’ Suggestion

While Paul was supported in his filibuster by a number of Republicans who share his Tea Party affiliations, Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham denounced his suggestion that an anti-war protester or someone walking down the street in an American town might be struck down by a drone.

Graham of South Carolina said such an attack would be murder, and McCain of Arizona said Paul was taking the debate into “the realm of the ridiculous.”

The Senate intelligence committee voted 12-3 behind closed doors on March 5 in favor of Brennan’s confirmation after the administration allowed panel members a look at Justice Department documents making the legal case for using drones to attack U.S. citizens linked to terrorism. 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.

‘Meaningful Oversight’

The American Civil Liberties Union praised Paul for using his filibuster to demand increased transparency from the Obama administration about the drone program, according to an e-mailed statement from the group.

“We’re glad to hear commitments from Congress to provide meaningful oversight over the killing program as well as a new promise from President Obama to provide a fuller explanation of it to the public,” Laura W. Murphy, director of the ACLU’s Washington legislative office, said in the statement.

“However, there is no substitute for providing the legal opinions to both Congress and the American people, and no one should accept anything less,” Murphy said.

Brennan’s confirmation follows that of John Kerry, who was approved as secretary of state on a 94-3 vote on Jan. 29, and Chuck Hagel, who was confirmed as defense secretary on a 58-41 vote on Feb. 26.

Brennan 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.

Feinstein Support

Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who heads the intelligence committee, said on the Senate floor that Brennan was extremely well-qualified for his new post.

“Throughout the past three decades, Mr. Brennan has observed every aspect of intelligence, from analysis to collection to covert action, from inside government and the private sector, and from both the intelligence and policy sides,” Feinstein said. “I don’t believe that there is anyone who is more qualified to take over the CIA than John Brennan.”

Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the top Republican on the committee, said that he opposed Brennan, partly because he thinks he was involved in leaks of classified information during Obama’s re-election campaign, which Brennan has denied.

“His response to many of these questions were very troubling and raised new concerns about Mr. Brennan’s judgment, his reluctance to commitment to transparency with Congress, and ultimately his candor,” Chambliss said.

Chambliss also called Brennan the “driving force” behind a “misguided” Obama administration policy toward terrorist detentions that favors criminal charges over long-term detentions that could yield key intelligence.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE