What's At Stake in John Brennan's Hearing to Lead the CIA

A protestor wearing a John Brennan mask demonstrates in front of the White House in Washington, Monday, Jan. 7, 2013, sponsored by CodePink, against President Obama's choice of John Brennan to head the CIA. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin) (National Journal)

Call it Chuck Hagel Part II.

John Brennan, President Obama's pick to head the CIA, faces a frustrated Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday, where he will be grilled on the Obama administration's increased use of drones and the harsh interrogations that took place during the Bush era. Brennan was a top aide to former CIA director George Tenet during the time just after the 9/11 attacks when harsh interrogation techniques, such as waterboarding, were being used. He has since said he opposed the program.

The White House has signaled confidence that Brennan's nomination will get Senate approval, despite concerns over civilian casualties resulting from the drone attacks and the targeting of some Americans. On Wednesday, White House press secretary Jay Carney said that the president is working to create a legal architecture for the drone program and to create further transparency.

The hearing could shed further light on the drone attacks, which have been carried out from Yemen to Pakistan but are rarely discussed publicly by administration officials. If Brennan's hearing goes as well as Hagel's, the president would face two top nominees at risk of upending his early second-term agenda.

Senators Target Brennan on Drones

Viewed as the architect of the administration's controversial targeted-killing program, which has taken the lives of several Americans suspected of being leaders in al-Qaida and other affiliated militant groups, Brennan oversaw the CIA and military's effort to quadruple the number of drone attacks versus the Bush administration, and both Democrats and Republicans on the Hill have raised concerns.

On Tuesday, the Justice Department leaked a 16-page white paper outlining the legal authority to kill Americans. The administration has also kept secret the location of many of the U.S. bases from which drone attacks have been launched.

Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, warned Brennan that he would delve into the drone program at the hearing, and could block the nomination if he doesn't get answers. From the "playbook" the administration uses to determine how to carry out strikes to a broader array of legal opinions that justify killing Americans, Wyden outlined his concerns over the program's secrecy.

"As I have said before, this situation is unacceptable," Wyden wrote in a letter to Brennan after his nomination. "For the executive branch to claim that intelligence agencies have the authority to knowingly kill American citizens but refuse to provide Congress with any and all legal opinions that explain the executive branch's understanding of this authority represents an alarming and indefensible assertion of executive prerogative."

The release of the legal briefing may have been aimed at easing criticisms, but it failed to quell concerns over Brennan from both lawmakers and human-rights groups.

"The administration has basically stiff-armed both Congress and the courts in their efforts to get transparency and oversight over the program," said Chris Anders, the senior legislative council for the ACLU's Washington office, later adding, "Other than the president himself, [Brennan] is the central player in the drone and killing program."

Brennan is likely to be questioned about the legal briefing and pressed on the breadth of the program. And while targeted killings have been conducted by both the CIA and the military, Brennan is expected to take the lead in shifting the drone program to the purview of the military.

Flashback to 2008: Still Concerns Over Interrogation Tactics

Additionally, lawmakers and human-rights groups still have concerns over the enhanced-interrogation program under the Bush administration and Brennan's role at the time. The Senate Intelligence Committee recently completed a classified 6,000-page report on the program, which as of last week Brennan had failed to read. Following a meeting with Brennan, Sen. Mark Udall, a Colorado Democrat, publicly criticized the nominee over the report.

"I was deeply disappointed today during my meeting with John Brennan," Udall said in a statement last week. "A few weeks ago, I had asked that he be prepared to discuss at today's meeting the findings of the Senate Intelligence Committee's comprehensive study on the CIA's Detention and Interrogation program. Not only was he not prepared to discuss the important findings, but he hadn't reviewed the report at all."

This is not the first time that Brennan has had to deal with sharp criticism over the torture program. When Obama was elected in 2008, Brennan's name surfaced as a top contender to head the CIA, but he took himself out of the running after several groups criticized Brennan's service in the Bush administration and the concerns over interrogation tactics.

Human Rights First, an international organization that has focused on these issues for more than 30 years, was among the opponents of Brennan's candidacy then. Dixon Osburn, the director of law and security for the group, said that even four years later, there are several questions of Brennan's record that remain unclear.

"Because there are lingering questions from the past, we see this nomination hearing as an opportunity for him to really set the record straight and also commit that he'll do everything possible to let the past record be known, let the intelligence report public, and then be able to move forward from there," Osburn said.

The group sent a letter to the members of the Senate Intelligence Committee last week, signed by former military interrogators. The letter asks that members question Brennan extensively about his role in the CIA at the time. Tony Camerino, one of the signers and a former military interrogator in Iraq whose team tracked down al-Qaida leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, still doesn't trust that Brennan has been forthright on his involvement.

"He said he opposed then, I'd like to hear how," Camerino said. "My concern is that he was on the bandwagon until it wasn't cool to be on the bandwagon, essentially. Then he jumped off."

But Mark Lowenthal, a high-ranking intelligence veteran who left the CIA in 2005, said that this treatment of Brennan has largely been unfair.

"John's record on the enhanced-interrogation program is fairly clear: that he had nothing to do with its implementation or the running of it when it was begun in the early days after 9/11. And he's been very clear that he doesn't like the idea," said Lowenthal, who is now the president of the Virginia-based Intelligence and Security Academy. "I was there at the time. Does that make me guilty? I don't know. That's just silly."

Cyberspace as the Next Battlefield

In addition to this administration's secret drone program and Brennan's previous record on the Bush administration's torture program, Brennan is likely to be questioned on the future of cybersecurity. According to recent reports, Brennan has played a major role in boosting the U.S. arsenal in protecting the country from cyberattacks.

After Congress failed to pass a cybersecurity law in its last session, the White House pledged to write an executive order to put in place certain protections. If confirmed by the CIA, Brennan is likely to work on this effort.