WASHINGTON — The Senate voted Thursday to confirm John Brennan as director of the Central Intelligence Agency, ending weeks of delay as lawmakers sought access to secret Obama administration documents about the targeted killing of militants overseas and the Sept. 11 attacks last year that killed four Americans in Benghazi, Libya.
The 63 to 34 vote came a day after Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) launched a rare and dramatic form of filibuster — talking for nearly 13 hours Wednesday on the Senate floor — to express concerns that the Obama administration had not categorically ruled out authority to use a drone to target an American on U.S. soil. Paul dropped his objection after receiving assurances from Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr.
Brennan, 57, becomes one of the few career spies to lead the nation’s premier spy service. He replaces David Petraeus, the retired Army general who ran the agency during the intelligence failure in Benghazi, and who resigned amid a sex scandal in November. Michael Morell, a veteran analyst, has served as acting director since then.
Brennan takes the helm at a sensitive time for the CIA. He must review a 6,000-page classified report by Senate Democrats that sharply criticizes the CIA’s use of coercive interrogation tactics, including waterboarding, after the 2001 terrorist attacks.
If he endorses the scathing report, he will be seen as censuring hundreds of CIA officers who worked on or supported the program, including at least two former directors.
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 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 when it comes to 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 declined to be named in discussing the classified program.
Brennan’s grilling by the Senate Intelligence Committee on Feb. 12 allowed lawmakers to air concerns 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.
Only one American has been targeted by CIA drone. The agency killed Anwar Awlaki, an Al Qaeda leader who was born in New Mexico, in Yemen in September 2011. Three other Americans, including Awlaki’s son, have been killed as unintended victims.
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 led the White House initially to describe the Benghazi attack as growing out of protests against a U.S.-made film that mocked Islam and 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.