Blog Buzz: Congress Wants More Drone Oversight

The blogosphere notes questioning of CIA director nominee John Brennan demonstrated congressional desire for more information on drone policy.

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John Brennan, President Barack Obama's nominee for CIA director, faced the Senate Intelligence Committee Thursday for his confirmation hearing. As expected, questioning of Brennan was very heavily focused on both the CIA's history of torture and the Obama administration's drone policy. At one point an interruption by anti-war protesters from Code Pink led Committee Chairwoman Sen. Dianne Feinstein to clear out the room. She called the hearing back into session after the room had been emptied, and questioning continued. 

Drones specifically have come out front and center this week, following the release by NBC News of an unclassified white paper detailing the Obama administration's rationale for using drones to target and kill American citizens thought to be involved with al Qaeda. Congress has objected to the secrecy surrounding such operations and expressed hesitation at allowing the president to have such sole control over the use of such a controversial policy. Brennan, President Barack Obama's chief counterterrorism adviser, appeared to be calm and collected as he responded to questions from the committee. He seemed to be better prepared for his hearing than former senator and secretary of defense nominee Chuck Hagel, who too appeared before the Senate Intelligence Committee last week for tough questioning on defense and national security matters.

[See a collection of political cartoons on President Obama's drone policy.]

Here’s a roundup of reactions to Brennan's hearing from around the blogosphere:

Swampland's Michael Crowley noted that due to the nature of the sensitive intelligence topics relevant to a hearing for the CIA director, Brennan didn't reveal much about drones, torture, or the War on Terror. And he said the questions posed show Congress might not be content being kept in the dark on such matters for much longer:

As interesting as Brennan's cautious, though generally effective, responses were the questions from his interrogators. Congress has generally played a hands-off role on counter-terrorism policy under Barack Obama. But several members of the Intelligence Committee seemed frustrated with various aspects of the ongoing campaign against al Qaeda. Democrats Diane Feinstein and Ron Wyden complained that the Obama administration had been too secretive about the drone program's very existence, and Wyden pressed his case that the White House should more clearly explain to the public its legal rationale for killing a U.S. citizen believed to be aligned with al Qaeda.

….

The Brennan hearing may have shed little light on Obama's likely next CIA director. But it might have been a sign that, when it comes to our long counter-terror campaign, a long-acquiescent Congress is finally getting restless.

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

Repeatedly pressed for more details on the amount of drone-related information Brennan would make the Senate privy to should he be confirmed as CIA director,Washington Post's Dana Milbank said the nominee will have an alarming amount of power to "play God" on counterterrorism. He also said there's a clear need for more congressional oversight, due in part to Brennan's vague answers to questions like one from Feinstein on the administration's lack of transparency on targeted killing by drones:

Brennan's response: Trust me. He assured the committee that, although administration lawyers have granted him and his colleagues enormous latitude to kill, "we only use these authorities and these capabilities as a last resort."

Some of the lawmakers' reticence to press Brennan had to do with the classified nature of the program. But politics played a role. Republicans didn't pry because they favor the targeted-killing program, and Democrats didn't raise civil-liberties objections because Brennan is the nominee of a Democratic president.  

That's a dangerous mind-set. The Iraq war was initially popular—before it took a disastrous turn. And though a large majority of Americans support the drone-warfare program, they are far more skeptical of killings that target U.S. citizens.