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John Brennan, President Obama's choice to lead the CIA, can look forward to a grilling Thursday on Capitol Hill. As Obama's chief counterterrorism adviser, he has been associated with some controversial policies, including the use of armed drones. Brennan's nomination comes before the Senate Intelligence Committee, and members from both parties have their questions ready.
It's unlikely that Brennan's appointment as CIA director is in trouble. The two most important members of Congress with respect to CIA oversight — the chairmen of the Senate and House intelligence committees, Democrat Dianne Feinstein and Republican Mike Rogers, respectively, have already endorsed him. Democrats control the Senate, and for them to challenge Brennan would be to oppose someone Obama wants as his CIA director.
Former CIA officer Bruce Riedel, who has known Brennan for more than 30 years, says Brennan's clout reminds him of the power William Casey had when he ran the agency under President Reagan.
"With the exception of Bill Casey, no director of Central Intelligence probably has as close a relationship with the president as John has with President Obama, and that's a tremendous asset for the CIA," Riedel says. "If you can get in the Oval Office and have your voice heard, you are by definition a player."
But being a major Washington player does not mean Brennan gets off easy Thursday. Republicans may want to know what he knew about the assault on U.S. diplomats in Benghazi, Libya; he could be asked about interrogation policies at the CIA when he worked there under President George W. Bush; and members from both parties will ask Brennan about his direction of the drone missile program.
Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon told NPR this week he was not satisfied with what the White House told him and other Intelligence Committee members about how it decides which suspected al-Qaida members it targets for killing.
"The administration is essentially telling the Congress and the American people: Just trust us," he said.
A so-called white paper leaked to the press this week laid out a general legal justification for killing an American citizen who's believed to be part of al-Qaida. But the administration until Wednesday evening had refused to grant lawmakers access to the underlying legal memoranda. Brennan is not an administration lawyer, but he will be questioned about those memos and the broader drone strike policies.
In a speech last summer, Brennan said the use of drone strikes by the U.S. has turned al-Qaida into "a shadow of what it once was."
But Gregory Johnsen of Princeton University argues that targeted killings have backfired, arousing sympathy for al-Qaida.
"When people like John Brennan say that the U.S. approach to fighting al-Qaida is disrupting, dismantling and defeating the organization, I think what we're seeing on the ground in a place like Yemen is, instead of doing just that, it's actually exacerbating the threat and expanding the organization," says Johnsen, the author of Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America's War in Arabia.
Members of Congress may want to know whether Brennan, returning to the CIA, will redirect the agency away from operations like drone strikes and back toward old-fashioned spying. Riedel, who directs the Intelligence Project at the Brookings Institution, says the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have pushed the agency into a different direction.
"As those ground wars come to an end, how does he pivot from managing large paramilitary covert operations to an increased role for the analytic and collection of intelligence mission which the agency has traditionally done when it's not doing paramilitary activities?" he says.
In written responses to questions from the Intelligence Committee, Brennan said he would not be the director of a CIA that carries out missions that should be carried out by the U.S. military. He was also asked about possible White House involvement in security leaks to news media. Brennan disclosed that he's voluntarily met with investigators looking into those leaks.
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