Amy Zegart

Tough Witness

John Brennan delivers a smart, but vague, performance.


"Mr. Brennan, congratulations on your nomination. As you can see, it’s going to be lively." These were the opening words of Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein during John Brennan’s confirmation hearing to be CIA director on Thursday. Coming just 72 hours after a controversial Obama administration legal paper on drone strikes was leaked to the press, Brennan’s confirmation was expected to create some fireworks. And it did. Protests grew so disruptive that Feinstein had to order the hearing room cleared by Capitol police. And that was just the beginning.

Much of the hearing covered expected terrain: the legal foundations, secrecy, and political costs of targeted killing; Brennan’s counsel against launching an operation to capture bin Laden back in the 1990s; his position on waterboarding and other Bush-era "enhanced interrogation techniques" when he was a senior CIA official; his views on intelligence reform and the CIA’s role; whether he leaked classified information about a major counterterrorism operation; his commitment to transparency and cooperation with congressional overseers. The questions were surprisingly smart and tough: Only one senator, Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, used his question time to invite Brennan to his home state for an intelligence play-date.

Brennan’s performance was smarter and tougher — a masterpiece of political maneuvering.

The whopper was Brennan’s admission that the Senate Intelligence Committee’s still-secret, 6,000 page report on Bush-era interrogations made him question what he thought he knew about the interrogation program and what was actually true. Did the CIA’s enhanced interrogation methods provide valuable information? Back in 2007, Brennan thought, and said, that it did. Now? He’s not so sure, and was stunned to learn that the program appears to have systemic management failures. But here’s the backstory he didn’t tell: Just days ago, word leaked that Brennan had angered committee members by not even reading the summary of their report, which took four years to produce and constitutes the longest and most-footnoted report in congressional history. So he came to the hearing prepared and deferential, vowing to give the report he ignored high priority. High priority, that is, without promising to declassify a single page. Secrecy still dies hard.

Brennan also eschewed the tried and true response officials in secret agencies usually use in public hearings: "I’d be happy to get into that in closed session." Instead, he was much, much craftier. I found myself wishing C-SPAN used those pop-up bubbles from old music videos — the ones that tell you what people are really thinking. Because the gap between talk and truth was yawning.

Brennan started by currying favor, declaring that the existing "trust deficit" between the Senate Intelligence Committee and the CIA would be "wholly unacceptable" if he were confirmed. He then promised cooperation without promising cooperation on a host of issues — from getting more administration legal memos on drone strikes to allowing the committee to see raw intelligence when requested — using words like "full consideration," "due consideration," and the need for "optimizing transparency and security." He claimed powerlessness — saying "I am not a lawyer" and claiming he was not in the CIA chain of command for particular programs — about unpopular decisions made when he held positions of power.

He agreed in principle to do things he has never done in practice, like publicly acknowledging if a drone strike mistakenly kills the wrong people (which the New York Times reported on Tuesday). And he used that careful phrasing they teach you at Langley. When Sen. Susan Collins, who knows the intel world cold, asked how exactly the Obama administration could say drone strikes are used only as a last resort when they seem to be the only resort these days, Brennan replied, with a straight face, that he could say "unequivocally" that when the United States had a chance to capture a terrorist, no drone strike was ordered. He was right. Because when drone strikes are ordered to kill a terrorist, there is no chance to capture him.

Brennan also fought back when he felt he had to, angrily rejecting Sen. Jim Risch’s accusations that he had improperly leaked classified information about a terrorist plot to television commentators that may have exposed a U.S. asset in a terrorist cell. Did Brennan admit to saying the United States had "inside control" of a terrorist plot to blow up U.S.-bound airplanes? Yes. But, said Brennan, there are many types of "inside control" that wouldn’t necessarily suggest the United States had a mole, including "environmental" inside control. Nobody seemed to know what the heck that meant. But Risch’s time was up.

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