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Brennan wins confirmation as CIA director

The Senate approves career spy John Brennan by a wide margin despite long delays. Now he faces the sensitive issues of interrogation, drones and the September attack in Benghazi, Libya.

March 07, 2013|By Ken Dilanian and Michael Memoli, Washington Bureau
  • John Brennan is sworn in to testify Feb. 7 at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee. The Senate has confirmed him as CIA director by a 63-34 vote.
John Brennan is sworn in to testify Feb. 7 at his confirmation hearing before… (Saul Loeb, AFP/Getty Images )

WASHINGTON — Having spent 25 years as a CIA analyst and overseas operative, John Brennan is one of the few career spies ever to lead America's premier spy service. 

The Senate voted 63 to 34 Thursday to confirm Brennan as CIA director after weeks of delay — and a dramatic 13-hour talking filibuster on Wednesday — as lawmakers from both parties pushed the Obama administration for access to secret documents about the targeted killing of militants overseas and the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks that killed four Americans in Benghazi, Libya.

Brennan, 57, a burly, blunt-speaking New Jersey native, replaces David H. Petraeus, the retired Army general who ran the CIA during the intelligence failure in Benghazi, and who resigned in a sex scandal in November. Michael Morell, a veteran analyst, has been serving as acting director.

In a White House statement, President Obama said, "The Senate has recognized in John the qualities I value so much — his determination to keep America safe, his commitment to working with Congress, his ability to build relationships with foreign partners, and his fidelity to the values that define us as a nation."

"Timely, accurate intelligence is absolutely critical to disrupting terrorist attacks, dismantling Al Qaeda and its affiliates, and meeting the broad array of security challenges that we face as a nation," the statement said. "John's leadership, and our dedicated intelligence professionals, will be essential in these efforts."

Brennan takes over at a sensitive time for the CIA. He must review a 6,000-page classified report by Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee that sharply criticizes the CIA's use of coercive interrogation tactics, including waterboarding and painful stress positions, on suspects captured overseas after the 2001 terrorist attacks.

If Brennan endorses the scathing report, he will be seen as censuring hundreds of CIA officers who worked on or supported the now-closed interrogation program, including at least two former directors. If he doesn't, he may face difficulties gaining credibility with Democrats on congressional oversight committees.

Brennan also arrives as the administration debates whether to pare down the CIA's targeted killing of militants and suspected terrorists abroad, and transfer more of the armed drone operations to the military, which also flies drones. Proponents argue that the CIA needs to focus more on other priorities, including espionage and intelligence analysis.

As White House counter-terrorism advisor for the last four years, Brennan oversaw a sharp escalation in drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Former colleagues describe him as a moderating force in internal debates, arguing for restraint on who was put on a secret "kill list" and targeted.

"I actually think he's done more to, if not limit it, then at least manage the program, than anybody," said a former senior U.S. intelligence official who discussed the program on condition of anonymity because it is classified.

Brennan's grilling by the Senate Intelligence Committee on Feb. 12 allowed lawmakers to air concern for the first time in public about targeted killings, and to demand classified legal opinions that the White House used to authorize drone strikes against Americans overseas. The White House ultimately surrendered all the secret memos to the committee.

"The country is seeing that there's a difference between operations conducted by the CIA, which have to be kept secret in order to protect our country, and the law itself, which should not be kept secret," Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said Thursday.

Only one American has been targeted by a CIA drone. The agency killed Anwar Awlaki, a New Mexico-born Al Qaeda leader, in Yemen in September 2011. Three other Americans, including Awlaki's son, have been killed unintentionally.

During Brennan's confirmation hearing, some lawmakers suggested creating an independent special court to review future targeting of suspected U.S. terrorists abroad. Brennan said the administration was considering such an approach.

Committee members also received briefings about the intelligence assessments that initially led the White House to describe the Benghazi attack as growing out of protests against a film made in the U.S. that mocked Islam and had sparked violent demonstrations in other Muslim countries. The administration later said some militants with at least nominal ties to Al Qaeda took part in the Benghazi attacks.

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