A long-awaited public discussion on drone warfare and torture finally arrived on Thursday, when the Senate Intelligence Committee sat with John Brennan, President Barack Obama’s nominee for CIA director, for a confirmation hearing.
But there were no revelations. Brennan remained, under questioning, as tight-lipped, vague and noncommittal as, well, a nominee to head a vast espionage agency.
If the public was wondering how exactly the White House and the spy agency carry out drone operations and the criteria used for deciding who gets killed, then it will just have to continue to speculate. Americans essentially learned nothing new about drone strikes and targeted killings from Brennan’s confirmation hearing. Brennan basically reinforced what Americans already were aware of -- he knows how to keep matters of national security a secret, and he does it really well.
Brennan didn't say whether he thinks waterboarding is torture, whether torture worked or provided information that was useful in finding Osama bin Laden and whether the U.S. should allow Americans suspected of being terrorists to surrender before killing them.
The senators did ask pertinent questions. They tackled many of the contentious issues of the day: drones, torture and transparency. But Brennan was impenetrable. And if there was a contest of who could stare the other down first, he won.
There were a few intense moments, like when Idaho Republican Sen. James Risch accused the 25-year intelligence veteran of leaking information.
Risch bluntly stated that it seemed to him that the source of a Justice Department leak “is right here in front of us.” But Brennan was just as blunt, saying, “I disagree with you vehemently, Senator.”
Some may have found it a bummer when Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden, a big critic of the handling of drones and of transparency in the Obama administration, didn't produce the fireworks some observers expected. But Wyden’s initial persistence had already paid off. He had been concerned about the administration’s failure to release classified legal memos justifying the extrajudicial killing of Americans. The White House kind of doused that fire the prior evening by agreeing to let committee members review those white papers. That seemed to satisfy Wyden.
If anything, the hearing might have reminded Brennan, who as head of CIA will wield huge power, that he is still answerable to Congress.
We also saw a human side of Brennan. It took some prodding, but he finally told lawmakers that he never believed it is better to kill terrorists than to detain them. Brennan also told Sen. Carl Levin waterboarding is “reprehensible” and that it shouldn’t have happened. And as for those mistakenly killed by drones, Brennan said the U.S. government should publicly acknowledge it.
Brennan promised to consider every request from the committee and be honest with lawmakers -- this after Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., said she felt as if she had been “jerked around by every CIA director.”
It seems promises of transparency while still keeping secrecy is the best the public can hope for right now.