Deal on Drone Documents Opens Path for Brennan as Panel Backs Nomination
The confirmation prospects for John O. Brennan to become CIA director got a boost Tuesday with Senate Intelligence Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein announcing that the administration would supply her panel with additional legal opinions on the targeted killing of U.S. citizens suspected of terrorism overseas. The committee then approved his nomination Tuesday afternoon in a closed 12-3 vote.
Senators on both sides of the aisle had demanded the documents, but the committee had only viewed four of the 11 Office of Legal Counsel memos, and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., had not ruled out the possibility of putting a hold on Brennan’s nomination until the rest were handed over. Feinstein’s announcement appears to remove that threat to his confirmation.
“I have reached an agreement with the White House to provide the committee access to all OLC opinions related to the targeted killing of Americans in a way that allows members to fulfill their oversight responsibilities,” the California Democrat said in a press release. “I am pleased the administration has made this information available. It is important for the committee to do its work and will pave the way for the confirmation of John Brennan to be CIA director.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Monday that he plans a full Senate vote on Brennan this week.
Wyden, along with fellow Intelligence panel members Mark Udall, D-Colo., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, praised the administration’s decision to share the legal opinions.
“We anticipate supporting the nomination of John Brennan to be Director of the CIA and we appreciate that the executive branch has provided us with the documents needed to consider this nomination,” the trio said Tuesday in a written statement. “Mr. Brennan will be the principled and effective leader that the dedicated men and women of the CIA deserve and we look forward to working with him in his new capacity.”
They also suggested that they would consider legislation related to drone strikes in the future.
“The appropriate next step should be to bring the American people into this debate and for Congress to consider ways to ensure that the President’s sweeping authorities are subject to appropriate limitations, oversight, and safeguards,” they wrote.
The agreement on the drone documents does not clear every barrier to Brennan’s confirmation, however.
Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina have both threatened holds over information related to last year’s terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., has also threatened a hold until the Obama administration answers publicly whether it can conduct drone strikes within the United States.
Paul said Tuesday that he received a useful answer from Brennan.
In a March 5 letter to Paul, Brennan wrote, “I can, however, state unequivocally that the agency I have been nominated to lead, the CIA, does not conduct lethal operations inside the United States — nor does it have any authority to do so.”
Said Paul, “That is the answer I was looking for.”
But Paul added that he had received a more equivocal answer from Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.
“The U.S. government has not carried out drone strikes in the United States and have no intention of doing so,” Holder wrote Paul on March 4. But, he added, “It is possible, I suppose, to imagine an extraordinary circumstance in which it would be necessary and appropriate under the Constitution and the appropriate laws of the United States for the President to authorize the military to use lethal force within the territory of the United States.” He mentioned the Pearl Harbor and Sept. 11 attacks as possible examples.
Holder “basically said that they don’t intend to do it and they probably won’t do it but he can imagine a circumstance where they might,” Paul said. “My problem is, I don’t know the exact number, but if I had to guess, a significant number of the drone strikes are on people walking down a pathway, people eating dinner, people in a cafe. They may be bad people, but you can’t use that kind of standard in the United States to kill people eating in a cafe in San Francisco because they emailed somebody.”
He added, “That’s not the way we operate, and it disturbs me that the president will not answer unequivocally that he won’t do that and can’t do that and there’s no authority for him to do that with the military of the United States.”
Paul said he is re-evaluating whether or not to place a hold on Brennan.
Either way, the sharing of additional OLC memos should help Brennan’s chances of overcoming a filibuster.
Matt Fuller contributed to this report.