Senate panel approves Brennan for CIA director
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WASHINGTON -- The Senate intelligence committee approved John Brennan as the next CIA director Tuesday, ending weeks of tense delay and setting the stage for the full Senate to vote on President Barack Obama's last major pick for his national security Cabinet.
The committee voted, 12-3, in a closed-door hearing, hours after the White House agreed to give the House and Senate intelligence committees secret Justice Department opinions on the targeted killing of American terror suspects overseas, and records from the terrorist attacks last Sept. 11 at U.S. diplomatic and intelligence compounds in Benghazi, Libya.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the committee chairwoman, praised Mr. Brennan after the vote and said the CIA "needs oversight, needs supervision, needs direction. And it needs a director."
A veteran CIA officer, Michael Morrell, has served as acting director of the spy agency since David Petraeus resigned last November in a sex scandal.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he wants the full Senate to consider Mr. Brennan's nomination by week's end. The nominee is widely expected to win confirmation.
Mr. Brennan, 57, the son of immigrants from Roscommon, Ireland, spent a quarter-century at the CIA, including stints as an analyst, as station chief in Saudi Arabia and as chief of staff to then-director George Tenet, among other positions. He has been White House counter-terrorism adviser for the last four years.
Mr. Brennan's bid to become CIA director in Mr. Obama's first term fell apart over questions about his involvement in brutal CIA interrogations of terror suspects after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Mr. Brennan said he opposed the use of waterboarding, stress positions and other tactics that the CIA later abandoned.
At the White House, Mr. Brennan has presided over a dramatic escalation of CIA drone strikes against suspected militants in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, as well as other operations. Democrats and Republicans in Congress used Mr. Brennan's nomination to demand answers regarding who gets put on the so-called "kill list," and whether the highly classified program has adequate oversight. That led to more delays than is typical for a Democrat-controlled Senate to consider the choice of a Democratic president.
An intelligence committee vote scheduled for Feb. 14 was postponed twice, as members sought secret Justice Department memos laying out the legal justification for the White House decision to target and kill Anwar al Awlaki. A CIA drone strike killed the American-born al-Qaida cleric in Yemen in September 2011.
The White House provided two of the classified opinions to the committee before Mr. Brennan's Feb. 12 confirmation hearing, and agreed Monday night to make the rest available before the vote, Ms. Feinstein said. The White House also agreed, in response to Ms. Feinstein's complaints, to allow a staff aide for each committee member to review the memos.
Human rights groups said the administration needs to do more to ensure stronger oversight of the drone program. "This is an important step forward, but it's woefully inadequate to guarantee robust oversight of the targeted killing program," said Raha Wala, counsel for Human Rights First, a nonpartisan group. "As far as we know, these memos cover only one targeting decision -- the targeting of Anwar al Awlaki -- in the hundreds that have occurred during the Bush and Obama administrations." He said all memos regarding any aspect of the CIA drone campaign should be turned over to Congress.
Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss, the intelligence panel's ranking Republican, was one of the three who voted no. He said he wanted a "stronger trust relationship with the CIA than what I thought Mr. Brennan could bring." But he didn't indicate an appetite for further delays. "I don't intend to encourage a filibuster of Mr. Brennan," he said. "I think it'll run its normal course, and he'll probably be confirmed."
Also voting no were Sens. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and James Risch, R-Idaho.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who is not on the intelligence committee, had vowed to delay the vote until the White House assures him that it has no authority to target an American within the United States. But Mr. Paul acknowledged that he probably cannot find enough senators to support a filibuster, which can be defeated by 60 votes.
Mr. Paul received a letter from Mr. Brennan saying the CIA had no authority to conduct drone strikes on U.S. soil, a congressional source said. He got a second letter from Attorney General Eric Holder that did not rule out use of armed drones by any government agency, and he remains unsatisfied, the source said. But it is unclear if he will filibuster.
First Published March 6, 2013 12:00 am