Will John Brennan get hit hard for drone policies in Senate hearing?

John Brennan, President Obama's pick for CIA director, is sure to get an earful from some senators about the administration’s rationale for drone strikes against terror suspects, including US citizens.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
White House counterterrorism advisor John Brennan listens as President Obama nominates him to become the next CIA director at the White House in Washington last month. Mr. Brennan is set for a Senate nomination hearing on Thursday afternoon.

Will John Brennan face considerable opposition in his quest to become director of the Central Intelligence Agency? That question arises because Mr. Brennan, currently President Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, is set for a Senate nomination hearing on Thursday afternoon. Former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R), Mr. Obama’s choice to lead the Defense Department, had an unexpectedly tough appearance himself before the Senate last week. Is it possible the same thing will happen to Brennan?

Well, it’s politics, so anything might happen. Brennan is sure to get an earful from some senators about the administration’s rationale for drone strikes against terror suspects, including those who are American citizens.

But Brennan’s not Mr. Hagel. The latter brought at least some of his trouble on himself by performing poorly: He struggled for words, and at times he even seemed unacquainted with basic administration policy. The former is likely to be better prepared, both because that’s in his nature and because he’s seen recently what happens when you aren’t.

Plus, the potential flash points in the Brennan and Hagel nominations are far different.

To be sure, the administration’s drone policies are highly controversial, and Brennan helped manage that program. Prior to his hearing, the White House provided Senate Intelligence Committee members with a highly classified legal document outlining when, where, and why the United States might use drones to attack even American citizens. An unclassified summary of this memo’s points was leaked to NBC earlier this week, showing that the administration defines an “imminent threat” rather broadly, among other things.

The hearing might put the drone program itself on trial. But if it does, it will be a few members of the president’s own party leading the prosecution. Intelligence committee member Sen. Ron Wyden (D) of Oregon, for instance, has been among those expressing the most vocal reservations about using armed, unmanned aircraft to hunt down America’s enemies overseas.

“The Founding Fathers thought the president should have significant power in the national-security arena. But there have to be checks and balances,” Senator Wyden said this morning on NBC.

Republicans, on the other hand, have been generally supportive of the administration’s use of drones, likening it to President Bush’s expansive use of executive power. That’s crucial for Brennan’s prospects. It’s been an organized effort by a conservative opposition angry about the administration’s response to the attacks in Benghazi, Libya, that’s thrown sand in the gears of Hagel’s nomination. Brennan won’t encounter the same thing.

“I think it’s going to be tough, but I don’t think he’s going to have a hard time,” said conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer of the Brennan nomination hearing during a Fox News appearance Wednesday.

That does not mean the drone issue will just fade away. The release of the summary white paper has only inflamed groups already opposed to the use of armed drones, indefinite detention of terror suspects, and other controversial aspects of the US war on terror.

“Brennan has been something of a Forrest Gump of toxic national security policies, having been in the room when everything from torture to the killing of an American citizen was being debated,” Christopher Anders of the American Civil Liberties Union said in a statement this week.

But as Chris Cillizza points out in The Fix blog at The Washington Post, drones are a much bigger issue in Washington than they are in the country at large. Polls show overwhelming support for the drone program among US citizens.

A Washington Post/ABC News survey from February 2012 showed a whopping 83 percent approval rating for the program, for instance.

“It’s ... important to remember as the drone debate gains steam in Washington that there is little public appetite for an extended look at how unmanned attacks fit into our broader national security policy,” Mr. Cillizza writes. “Minds are made up on the matter. And, if the public has anything to do with it, drones are here to stay.”

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