A Tale of Two Confirmation Hearings

Open Hearing: Nomination of John O. Brennan to be the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency on Thursday, Feb. 7, 2013. (Chet Susslin) (National Journal)

"Stop killing the children of Pakistan!"

Before John Brennan even finished his opening statement, vociferous protesters, and the rest of the public for a time, were kicked out of his confirmation hearing to become the next CIA director. But that was the last truly contentious moment of the afternoon.

Although Brennan's hearing was built up as having the potential to be as combative as Chuck Hagel's for secretary of Defense, Brennan and the Senate Intelligence Committee didn't live up to the hype.

One of Hagel's disadvantages in going into last Thursday's hearing was his experience as a senator. Instead of his former colleagues giving him deference in the hearing, Hagel found out that his extensive record and years in the public eye were used in several heated exchanges against him. Brennan, on the other hand, reaped the benefits from his comparatively discreet public record.

Senators from both parties, of course, shared their concerns over Brennan's involvement with the enhanced-interrogation program during the Bush years and with the Obama administration's controversial drone program. But Brennan's New Jersey straight talk, which he referenced in his opening remarks, played to his advantage just one week after one of the most contentious confirmation hearings in recent years.

In answering the senators' questions — or at least in giving as detailed replies as a CIA professional of 25 years can possibly give — Brennan finally shed some light on his involvement in some of the most controversial intelligence programs of the past decade, answering tough questions even from Democrats.

Going into Thursday's hearing, Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, threatened to "pull out all the stops" to get proper answers over the Obama administration's legal justification for killing Americans suspected of being leaders in al-Qaida and other related militant groups. After the White House announced it would provide members of the Senate Intelligence Committee with broader legal briefings, Wyden's fiery rhetoric fizzled out.

"That's a good start," Wyden said, following Brennan's promise for more congressional oversight of the administration's drone program.

In a more heated back-and-forth, Sen. Carl Levin pressed Brennan over whether he would call waterboarding an act of torture.

"In your opinion, does waterboarding constitute torture?" Levin asked. Brennan refused to answer the question.

"Do you have a personal opinion as to whether waterboarding is torture?" Levin persisted.

"I have a personal opinion that waterboarding is reprehensible and is something that should not be done," Brennan said. "I'm not a lawyer, and I can't address that question."

As Levin's time expired, he accepted the answer and left the room for votes. Earlier, Brennan explained that, although he was privately against the enhanced-interrogation program during the Bush years, he did not act to stop the program, nor did he voice his concerns to top leaders in the CIA.

As opposed to the Hagel hearing, several of the senators' qualms weren't necessarily with Brennan as a person, but about the CIA as an institution. "I feel like I've been jerked around by every CIA director," said Sen. Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat.

Brennan, as he did with several senators, reassured her that he would work with Congress closely in his tenure as CIA director. The normally feisty Mikulski cracked a joke and thanked Brennan for his time. The next step for Brennan is a confidential hearing with the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday.

But whether it was his New Jersey straight talk or his minimal public rhetoric — or simply because he just prepared better — Brennan's initial hearing was in stark contrast to Hagel's hearing just one week earlier.