Leaked drones memo shakes up Brennan confirmation hearings

Obama's pick to head the CIA was a major architect of the administration's drone program

Topics: John Brennan, Department of Justice, CIA, Drones, Barack Obama,

John Brennan’s nomination to be the new CIA chief has been shaken up by revelations about the Obama administration’s use of drones to target American citizens overseas, and opponents of the drone program hope the confirmation process can be used as leverage to get more information about the killings from the White House.

Brennan, currently Obama’s counterterrorism adviser, is scheduled to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday as part of his confirmation process to be the new head of the CIA. And Brennan, a chief architect of the targeted drone killings that have been a major part of Obama’s counterterrorism operations, is testifying just as the program is under renewed scrutiny.

On Monday, NBC News reported on a leaked Justice Department white paper from 2011 that reveals the Obama administration’s conclusion that it can legally target U.S. citizens with drone strikes.

The New York Times reports:

Individual strikes by the Predator and Reaper drones are almost never discussed publicly by Obama administration officials. But the clandestine war will receive a rare moment of public scrutiny on Thursday, when its chief architect, John O. Brennan, the White House counterterrorism adviser, faces a Senate confirmation hearing as President Obama’s nominee for C.I.A. director.

From his basement office in the White House, Mr. Brennan has served as the principal coordinator of a “kill list” of Qaeda operatives marked for death, overseeing drone strikes by the military and the C.I.A., and advising Mr. Obama on which strikes he should approve.

“He’s probably had more power and influence than anyone in a comparable position in the last 20 years,” Daniel Benjamin, the former coordinator for counterterrorism at the State Department, told the Times. “He’s had enormous sway over the intelligence community. He’s had a profound impact on how the military does counterterrorism.”

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Attorney General Eric Holder responded to the leaked memo on Tuesday: “One of the things I want to make sure that everybody understands is that our primary concern is to keep the American people safe, but to do so in a way that’s consistent with our laws and consistent with our values.”

But, the Washington Post reports, Brennan’s nomination could now be more contentious than the White House had hoped:

Nevertheless, the leak and signals from senior lawmakers that they may seek to delay, if not derail, Brennan’s confirmation made it clear that Obama’s decision to nominate him has drawn the White House into a fight it had sought to avoid.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a member of the intelligence committee, said Brennan’s level of influence and the timing of his nomination have given lawmakers leverage that they lacked in previous efforts to seek details from the White House.

Brennan “is the architect of [the administration’s] counterterrorism policy,” Wyden said. “If the Congress doesn’t get answers to these questions now, it’s going to be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to get them in the future.”

Eight Democrats and three Republicans wrote to the president on Monday demanding more information on the program. “We ask that you direct the Justice Department to provide Congress, specifically the judiciary and intelligence committees, with any and all legal opinions that lay out the executive branch’s official understanding of the president’s authority to deliberately kill American citizens,” the letter said.

Jillian Rayfield is an Assistant News Editor for Salon, focusing on politics. Follow her on Twitter at @jillrayfield or email her at jrayfield@salon.com.

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