WASHINGTON -- The confirmation hearing Thursday of John Brennan to be CIA director reopened scrutiny of a wide range of controversies that have dogged the country for more than a decade, ranging from the Obama administration’s embrace of targeted killings to the Bush administration’s use of enhanced interrogation techniques many equate with torture.
Senate Intelligence Committee members complained that CIA directors for the past decade, and the Obama administration more recently, had failed to fully cooperate with Congress’ efforts to oversee the country’s intelligence community.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., captured the flavor of the questioning when she charged that in her 10 years on the committee, every CIA director since George Tenet, with the exception of current Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, had obfuscated, misled and lied to the committee. Tenet held the post from 1997 to 2004.
“With the exception of Mr. Panetta, I feel I’ve been jerked around by every CIA director,” she said.
Brennan, 57, repeatedly said he expected things would be different during his tenure. “If I am confirmed, a trust deficit between the committee and the CIA would be wholly unacceptable to me,” he pledged.
Critics of President Barack Obama’s counterterrorism efforts were unconvinced.
“John Brennan’s refusal to unequivocally call waterboarding torture is Orwellian, and his hollow claim that drone strike policy complies with the law is wrong,” said Frank Jannuzi of Amnesty International, the human rights advocacy group. “If the last decade has taught us anything, it’s that unchecked presidential power, coupled with efforts to twist and reinterpret international law to justify virtually any actions on the part of the government, leads to human rights violations.”
The issues committee members raised were an indication of how unsettled many controversies remain from the last two presidential administrations. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., pointedly demanded that Brennan, once installed, take steps to declassify a memo that he said would debunk reports that 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta had met with an agent of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in Prague before the 2001 attacks -- an assertion that had been used to build enthusiasm for the Iraq war.
Later, Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., blasted the current White House’s slowness in surrendering documents the committee has requested for its investigation into the attacks six months ago in Benghazi, Libya, that killed the U.S. ambassador to that country and three other Americans..
Brennan, who Obama nominated after retired Army Gen. David Petraeus resigned in November following his admission of an extramarital affair, is expected to win confirmation as the agency’s fifth director in nearly nine years.
But his hearing came as the Obama administration faces growing questions about the legality of its top-secret program of targeted killings of alleged terrorists, including Americans, and the number of civilians who have died in hundreds of missile strikes on Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia by the CIA’s drone aircraft.
Brennan, a former CIA station chief in Saudi Arabia who serves as Obama’s counterterrorism adviser, is a chief architect of the program, which the administration contends is constitutional. But the administration was compelled on Wednesday to provide the committee with the classified Justice Department legal opinion on the program’s legality following the leak of a confidential white paper, which outlined its case that Obama was empowered to order the 2011 killing in Yemen by a drone of Anwar al Awlaki, an American who became a leader of al Qaida’s branch in the Arabian Peninsula.