President Obama’s pick for CIA director, John Brennan, isn’t quite James Bond. But with a fluent grasp of Arabic and experience serving as the agency’s Riyadh station chief, Brennan is a bit of a mystery man. As the chief architect of Obama's counterterrorism policies, he has only rarely ventured into the spotlight. Part of his history also includes his service as a top CIA official in the Bush administration. His tenure there cost him the top CIA job four years ago when Obama had been considering him for it. Controversy arose over the use in the Bush era of harsh interrogations of terrorism suspects, forcing Brennan to withdraw. Those questions still linger, although attention has shifted more recently to his role in the White House’s drone program.
Brennan will face tough questions today before the Senate Intelligence Committee. National Journal has obtained a copy of the senators’ questions, and Brennan’s prepared testimony. Here’s what to expect.
Public scrutiny of the CIA’s armed drones overseas has blossomed more broadly into worries that the agency is growing too reliant on covert kinetic action. Brennan makes clear that he believes a bright line should separate military and paramilitary activity. The irony, of course, is that by definition, the boundaries of “paramilitary” missions are far from clear. Brennan mostly punts.
Growing reports that the White House is developing a “disposition matrix” -- a playbook that governs what the United States can do to a terror suspect and when -- get some attention from the Senate. Brennan acknowledges that some such processes exist, but gives a vague answer on the matrix.
IS AL-QAEDA A THREAT?
Brennan gives a “duh” answer here that might be considered glib if the subject weren’t so serious:
CIA AND NYPD
Brennan admits he knew that the CIA and the New York Police Department were working together to spy on Muslim Americans back in 2011. The CIA, of course, isn’t allowed to do anything of the kind -- domestic crime is the FBI’s wheelhouse. It doesn’t really make Brennan look bad, given that he had left the CIA long before then -- but still, it’s a revealing bit of testimony.
INTERROGATION AND DETENTION
The Senate takes Brennan to task over his renunciation of enhanced interrogation, although Brennan takes care to distance himself from the program, saying had nothing to do with its creation or implementation. Later on, he also reiterates that "the CIA is out of the detention business and it should stay that way."
Brennan gives one of his most extensive answers on the explicit question of drone strikes -- when, how, and where the United States can carry them out. Note the last paragraph where he lays out the specific legal justification for conducting strikes in non-theaters of war.