WASHINGTON A Senate panel will hold confirmation hearings Thursday for John O. Brennan, President Barack Obama’s nominee to take over the CIA, amid new revelations about the Obama administration’s targeted killing program that Brennan has helped oversee.
Brennan, who has wielded tremendous power as the president’s top White House counterterrorism adviser, is expected to face occasionally sharp questioning on a range of topics: from the drone campaign in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere to his role in the Bush administration’s detention and interrogation program carried out while he was a top official at the CIA.
The hearing comes just days after the leak of a Justice Department document explaining the legal rationale for the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen who had joined al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and was killed in Yemen in September 2011. Brennan, a former CIA station chief in Saudi Arabia, has been central to the Obama administration’s clandestine war inside Yemen.
Pressured by members of Congress in the days before the hearing, the White House on Wednesday ordered the Justice Department to provide the congressional Intelligence Committees with the formal, classified memos that provide the legal justification for the killing of al-Awlaki and other U.S. citizens overseas who are considered terrorists. The Obama administration had previously refused to give lawmakers the full memos, written by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel.
Because so much of the targeted killing program remains shrouded in secrecy, however, it is unclear how much the Senate Intelligence Committee will press Brennan for detailed answers about the program during the public session, or whether it will wait until the additional “closed hearing” that is routine for the confirmation hearings of CIA directors.
If he returns to the CIA as its director, he will inherit an agency that has changed drastically in the years since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, with a new focus on hunting down terrorists that has led some to say that the agency has strayed too far from its traditional mission of foreign espionage and analysis.
In his responses to questions posed by the Senate Intelligence Committee in advance of the hearing, Brennan hinted that he shared some of these concerns. For instance, he said that the agency’s performance in anticipating and analyzing the tumult in the Arab world since 2011 shows “that the CIA needs to improve its capabilities and its performance still further.”
Brennan, 57, is widely expected to be confirmed by the Senate, as senators from both parties have expressed their support for his candidacy and lawmakers have generally approved of the Obama administration’s aggressive use of drone strikes overseas.