The Senate Intelligence Committee voted Tuesday to approve President Barack Obama's pick to lead the CIA after winning a behind-the-scenes battle with the White House over access to a series of top-secret legal opinions that justify the use of lethal drone strikes against terror suspects, including American citizens.
John Brennan's installation at the spy agency has been delayed as Senate Democrats and Republicans have pressed the Obama administration to allow a review of the classified documents prepared by the Justice Department. The senators have argued they can't perform adequate oversight without reviewing the contents of the opinions, but the White House had resisted requests for full disclosure.
The intelligence committee's chairwoman, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said in a statement Tuesday that the committee voted 12-3 to send Brennan's nomination to the full Senate for confirmation. The panel's deliberations were held behind closed doors. Feinstein did not identify the senators who voted against Brennan.
Although Brennan has made it out of the committee, Republicans have threatened to hold up his nomination unless the White House supplies them with classified information, including emails among top U.S. national security officials, detailing the Obama administration's actions immediately following the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya. U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed during the raid.
Feinstein said the full Senate should act quickly confirm Brennan, who spent 25 years at the CIA before becoming Obama's top counterterrorism and homeland security adviser in the White House.
"He draws on a deep well of experience — 25 years as a CIA analyst, chief of station, manager, head of counterterrorism efforts and White House homeland security adviser," Feinstein said of Brennan.
Brennan so far has escaped the harsh treatment that former Sen. Chuck Hagel, the president's choice to lead the Defense Department, received from Senate Republicans even though Brennan is one of Obama's most important national security aides and the White House official who oversees the drone program.
Brennan also served as a senior CIA official during President George W. Bush's administration when waterboarding and other forms of "enhanced interrogation" and detention practices were adopted. Brennan has publicly denounced the use of these tactics, but the cloud hasn't gone completely away.
Brennan's stance on waterboarding and torture is inconsistent, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has said. Although Brennan has decried these methods, he also has said they saved lives, according to McCain, who said he is awaiting an explanation from Brennan. McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., are also leading the charge for the Benghazi records.
"All we want is the answers," McCain said Monday. "I'm not threatening anything. I just think we deserve the answers."
Senate Republicans put Hagel through a bruising confirmation process. They labeled their former Republican colleague as a political turncoat for attacking the Bush administration's handling of the war in Iraq, and cast him as hostile toward Israel, soft on Iran and unqualified for the job.
In attacking Hagel, who served two terms from Nebraska, the GOP settled old political scores and won points with its conservative base by challenging Obama's nominee so aggressively. The Senate confirmed Hagel last week to replace Leon Panetta as defense secretary on a 58-41 vote, with four Republicans joining the Democrats in backing the contentious choice.
Criticism of Brennan, by contrast, has been less intense. He was grilled for more than three hours during his Feb. 7 confirmation hearing before the Intelligence Committee, but also won praise from several lawmakers as the best qualified candidate to lead the CIA. Brennan, 57, is a veteran of more than three decades of intelligence work.
Former Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., who spent eight years on the House Intelligence Committee, said she expects Brennan to be confirmed by a comfortable margin. Senate Republicans took Hagel's nomination personally, she said, and they're unlikely to take a similar approach with Brennan.
"I don't think they're going to try the same play twice and really seriously wound Obama's national security team at a time when it's very important that we project strength," said Harman, president of the Wilson Center in Washington.
Brennan vigorously defended the use of drone strikes during his confirmation hearing. He declined to say whether he believes waterboarding, which simulates drowning, amounted to torture. But he called the practice "reprehensible" and said it should never be done again. Obama ordered waterboarding banned shortly after taking office.
Drone strikes are employed only as a "last resort," Brennan told the committee. But he also said he had no qualms about going after U.S.-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in September 2011. A drone strike in Yemen killed al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, both U.S. citizens. A drone strike two weeks later killed al-Awlaki's 16-year-old son, a Denver native.
Graham, one of Hagel's most acerbic critics, said last month that the Obama administration deserved an "A-plus" for its drone program and he rejected an idea floated by Feinstein and other senators to establish a special court system to regulate drone strikes.
"I'm 100 percent behind the administration," Graham said. "I think their program has been legal, ethical and wise."
But Graham, along with McCain, said the failure to turn over the Benghazi records is a dealbreaker. Graham said Sunday on CBS' "Face the Nation" that he and McCain "are hell-bent on making sure the American people understand this debacle called Benghazi."
Brennan spent 25 years at the CIA before moving in 2003 from his job as deputy executive director of the agency to run the Terrorist Threat Integration Center. He later worked as interim director of the center's successor organization, the National Counterterrorism Center.
When Bush's second term began in 2005, Brennan left government to work for a company that provides counterterror analysis to federal agencies. After Obama took office in 2009, he returned to the federal payroll as the president's top counterterrorism adviser in the White House.
If confirmed by the full Senate, Brennan would replace Michael Morell, the CIA's deputy director who has been acting director since David Petraeus resigned in November after acknowledging an affair with his biographer.