Why CIA nominee Brennan came off better than Hagel in Senate hearing

CIA director-designate John Brennan, in a confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, was not pressed very hard on the controversial drone strike program.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
CIA director nominee John Brennan testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee.

John Brennan is no Chuck Hagel. That’s an obvious bottom line from CIA director-designate Brennan’s confirmation hearing Thursday before the Senate Intelligence Committee.

In other words, Mr. Brennan was articulate and deft, and deflected the (few) tough questions he received. At this point, Senate approval of his promotion seems a foregone conclusion.

Brennan’s “the only guy for the job” said Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D) of West Virginia after several hours of hearing proceedings.

That’s a different situation than currently confronts former Senator Hagel, President Obama’s pick to run the Pentagon. He stumbled through his own Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation appearance, appearing at times out of touch with current administration policy, and unable to deal with questions about such things as his past statements on Israel – questions he must have known were coming.

Hagel’s still likely to squeak through the Senate, but the committee has yet to vote on his nomination, as GOP members demand more information on his speeches and business dealings.

As to Brennan, he was aided by the fact that no senator pressed him hard on the basics of the administration’s contentious drone strike program. It’s possible he’ll have to talk more about that at a scheduled Tuesday closed follow-up hearing.

It was ninety minutes in before Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine asked whether the armed drone attacks might be counterproductive, given that they at times kill civilians.

“I would not agree” with that sentiment, said Brennan, vehemently. “People are being held hostage to Al Qaeda in those areas.”

While that may be true in some of the tribal areas of Yemen, the negative reaction in Pakistan to the US drone program has been well-documented by reporters on the ground. Neither Senator Collins nor Brennan touched on that detail.

Democrats on the committee, with a few exceptions, focused at first not on the drone program but on issues dealing with so-called enhanced interrogation techniques such as waterboarding. Senator Rockefeller went on at length about a lengthy committee report that he said showed the techniques’ inefficacy.

Brennan said he had read parts of the report and that he did not disagree.

Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan asked Brennan if he thought waterboarding was “torture.” Brennan danced around that, yet said that waterboarding is “reprehensible” and something that “should never have been employed.”

Republicans focused on what they felt were leaks of classified information that Brennan may have been involved with, as well as some of the current White House counterterrorism adviser’s past actions as a career CIA official.

As to the former, Sen. James Risch (R) of Idaho charged that Brennan had leaked the sensitive information that the United States had inside knowledge about an operation related to Ibrahim al-Asiri, an Al Qaeda bomb maker, and an improvised explosive device.

“I disagree with you vehemently, Senator,” Brennan said.

As to the latter, Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R) of Georgia, the panel’s ranking minority member, asked whether Brennan, as a CIA station chief in Saudi Arabia in the late 1990s, had recommended that an operation intended to capture Osama bin Laden be canceled.

Brennan said that he had, and had no second thoughts about that. He was out of the operational loop, and was only giving his opinion, he said, and the operation had little chance of success.

“Other individuals were going to be killed,” he said.

Sen. Angus King (Ind.) of Maine did ask Brennan whether it might be possible for the US to establish a secret civilian court that could weigh possible drone strikes against US citizens working with Al Qaeda, or other difficult drone decisions, as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court now considers warrants for national security wiretaps within the US.

“It’s certainly worthy of discussion,” Brennan said.

And Sen. Ron Wyden (D) of Oregon asked whether the US should give a US citizen that might be the subject of a drone strike (such as Anwar al-Awlaki, the Yemeni-American Islamist cleric killed by a drone in 2011) the opportunity to surrender first.

Brennan seemed a bit flummoxed by this, replying that any US citizen who joins up with Al Qaeda must suspect they’re being targeted, and could just quit and give up if they wanted to.

“Any member of Al Qaeda … needs to know that they have the ability to surrender before we destroy that organization,” said Brennan.

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