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Interrogating Brennan

Senators need to press the CIA nominee on torture and drone assassinations.

January 09, 2013
  • President Obama has nominated John Brennan to succeed David H. Petraeus as director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
President Obama has nominated John Brennan to succeed David H. Petraeus…

It was obvious even before he was nominated that Chuck Hagel, President Obama's choice to be secretary of Defense, would undergo searching scrutiny by the U.S. Senate. But that body also needs to examine thoroughly the man who shared the stage with Hagel on Monday: John Brennan, whom the president nominated to succeed David H. Petraeus as director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Monday that "clearly Mr. Brennan has the qualifications and expertise to be the next CIA director." She's correct in the sense that Brennan served in the agency for a quarter of a century before leaving government in 2005, and since 2009 has served as Obama's chief counter-terrorism advisor. But the Senate can't confine its inquiry to Brennan's paper credentials.

Brennan was deputy executive director of the CIA when the George W. Bush administration and the CIA designed an interrogation program for suspected Al Qaeda prisoners that included waterboarding and other "enhanced interrogation techniques." The Times has reported that many current and former CIA officers say Brennan wasn't deeply involved in the program. Brennan himself, in a 2008 letter removing himself from consideration for the positions of CIA director or director of national intelligence, wrote that "I have been a strong opponent of many of the policies of the Bush administration such as the preemptive war in Iraq and coercive interrogation tactics [including] waterboarding."

Critics, however, point to an interview Brennan gave in which he said that "enhanced" techniques (not including waterboarding) had saved lives. The Senate Intelligence Committee, which will hold Brennan's confirmation hearings, needs to satisfy itself — and the public — that he was not complicit in tactics that Obama has repudiated.

Another focus of the hearings should be targeted killings. The administration has made it clear that it intends to use drone strikes to target Al Qaeda and other militant figures in Pakistan and Yemen; that decision won't be affected by whether or not Brennan is confirmed. But senators should use the confirmation hearings to press Brennan to expand on his public statements about how targeted killings are subjected to "rigorous standards and process of review." Too little is known about how those standards are applied to this troubling practice, and by whom. Brennan's confirmation hearings could provide greater clarity — if the Senate is willing to be more than a rubber stamp.

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