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CIA nominee John Brennan to face tough questions in Senate

President Obama's CIA nominee, John Brennan, faces a likely grilling on torture and drone strikes, but Senate confirmation appears likely.

February 04, 2013|By Ken Dilanian, Washington Bureau
  • John Brennan, President Obama's nominee to lead the CIA, meets with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
John Brennan, President Obama's nominee to lead the CIA, meets with… (Saul Loeb, AFP/Getty Images )

WASHINGTON— President Obama's choice to be the next CIA director will face tough questions at his Senate confirmation hearing Thursday, but it appears unlikely that lawmakers' concerns will derail his nomination.

Some Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee, including Mark Udall of Colorado and Ron Wyden of Oregon, were miffed that John Brennan had not read the 300-page executive summary of a Senate report on the CIA's interrogation program before meeting with them recently.

"Not only was he not prepared to discuss the important findings, but he hadn't reviewed the report at all," Udall said in a statement last week, adding that he was "deeply disappointed." The senator said he wanted Brennan to arrive Thursday prepared to answer questions about the report. Brennan will, National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said Monday.

Republicans plan to grill Brennan about leaks of classified information and the administration's characterization of the intelligence surrounding September's attack on the diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, that left four Americans dead.

Brennan, who began advising Obama during the 2008 campaign after a long career as a CIA analyst, withdrew his name from consideration as CIA director four years ago after critics sought to tie him to harsh interrogation tactics that many consider torture. Udall and other Democrats are not focusing on Brennan's role in the interrogation program, officials familiar with their thinking say, because he did not have a policymaking role in the CIA when the program was developed after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Brennan was deputy executive director, an administrator.

But Democrats want Brennan to address some of the key findings in the 6,000-page classified Senate report — that the interrogation program was mismanaged, and that CIA officers did not always level with their bosses or the White House about what was being done to detainees.

Brennan says he opposed harsh interrogation techniques such as waterboarding, although several former CIA officials do not remember that.

Separately, Democrats are reiterating their long-standing demand that the Obama administration allow them to read the classified legal opinions that justify the targeted killing of terrorism suspects who are American citizens. The administration has refused to confirm the existence of the opinions and argues that, if they exist, they amount to private legal advice inappropriate for sharing with Congress.

NBC News reported Monday night that it had obtained a summary of such a memo, in which the Justice Department concluded that the U.S. could order Americans killed if they were "senior operational leaders" of Al Qaeda or "an associated force." The memo, NBC said, also broadens the definition of what can be considered an imminent violent attack.

Republicans are keen to question Brennan about leaks of classified information — in particular, his briefing in May to a group of former government counter-terrorism officials about a foiled plot to build a new underwear bomb to blow up an American jetliner. Vietor said Brennan was simply trying to reassure the public that there was no danger.

One of the analysts with whom Brennan met — Richard Clarke, former chief of counter-terrorism under President Clinton — said on ABC the next morning that the plot "never came close because they had insider information, insider control."

Within hours, the Los Angeles Times and other news media had reported the gist of a story that the CIA was desperately trying to keep secret — that Saudi, British and U.S. intelligence agencies had infiltrated Al Qaeda's Yemen affiliate with a double agent.

Republicans view Brennan as a sharp-elbowed partisan, one senior Republican aide said. The official added, however, that "whatever we say is not going to matter. It's only if liberals get up in arms" that Brennan would have a serious problem.

"There's no indication of any trouble" for Brennan's confirmation, Vietor said.

ken.dilanian@latimes.com

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