John Brennan Senate Hearing: Drone Strikes Are Irrelevant, Confirm Him For CIA Head


John Brennan, chief architect of President Obama’s drone program and the man who urged him to authorize the Navy SEAL Team 6 raid to eliminate Osama Bin Laden, appeared before the Senate Thursday in a confirmation hearing to become the next director of the CIA. The drone program has exploded under Obama, and the death of Osama bin Laden is already one of the most important moments in his presidency. So should the Senate confirm the man who President Obama has turned to for advice in both of these situations?

The answer is yes. But there is a key national security issue that many want Brennan to answer for: targeted killings.

The Senate hearing for Brennan should not focus too heavily on this topic because questioning Brennan will accomplish nothing in slowing down the drone program. Although Brennan has been instrumental to the existence and success of the program, his presence as director of the CIA would be inconsequential to the continued drone strikes.

Targeted killings of top terrorists were always going to be a contentious topic in Brennan’s confirmation. But in light of the leaked Justice Department document explaining the Obama administration’s legal justification for targeting U.S. citizens working for Al-Qaeda, this topic might not get as much attention as it would have before. The memo let us see what we already knew: the Obama administration is going to relentlessly hunt and kill terrorists by using drones without much substantive reproach. Is it necessary to question and grill Brennan on this topic just days after the memo was released and replay all of the details in Brennan’s confirmation hearing? What is such political theatre really going to achieve?

The administration has been successful with drone strikes and shows no signs of slowing down. This is certainly not news. Recent revelations of the "secret" drone base in Saudi Arabia aren't even news. According to this article, the base was previously reported on months ago. If Congress wishes to address these issues, it can do so on its own time, not at the confirmation hearing for Brennan. Congress has not substantively interfered with the Obama administration’s drone program. It would not make sense to start now, by berating and bothering the architect of the program, when it had so many opportunities to raise objections before and in a different forum.

There are three spheres ofpresidential power. The first is when the president acts pursuant to an express or implied authorization of Congress. In this case, the president’s authority is at its maximum, including all the powers he possesses under the Constitution in addition to the authority that Congress delegates. The second is when the Executive Branch acts in absence of a congressional granting or denial of authority. He can only rely on his own independent powers. The third is when the president takes measures incompatible with the express or implied will of Congress. His powers are at their minimum here, since he can only rely on his own constitutional powers minus any powers reserved for Congress.

In this article, the Obama administration states it does not need congressional approval to run the drone program. The president is certainly not acting against the expressed will of Congress, as in the third sphere of executive power; if the legislature wishes to challenge the administration's position, it should do so on its own time.

But this has little to do with who is running the CIA. It has everything to do with Congress and the president. Congress isn’t going to achieve change by asking hard questions in a confirmation hearing. The drone program has continued to run this entire time with Brennan in a support rather than leadership capacity; what will attacking him during a hearing accomplish with regard to ending that program?  

The Senate hearings should focus on the purpose for the CIA’s existence: efficiently collecting actionable intelligence. This duty ranges from monitoring North Korea to handling detention and interrogations. And with his track record, Brennan brings everything to the table that the Senate could want as CIA director. If the Obama administration has trusted Brennan’s advice thus far, it seems that he should be confirmed as the next director of the CIA. No one, Republicans or Democrats, has complained about the results of the Obama administration’s fight against Al-Qaeda.