WASHINGTON — The Senate Intelligence Committee voted Tuesday to approve President Barack Obama's pick to lead the CIA after winning a behind-the-scenes battle with the White House over access to a series of top-secret legal opinions that justify the use of lethal drone strikes against terror suspects, including American citizens.
John Brennan's installation at the spy agency has been delayed as Senate Democrats and Republicans have pressed the Obama administration to allow a review of the classified documents prepared by the Justice Department. The senators have argued they can't perform adequate oversight without reviewing the contents of the opinions, but the White House had resisted requests for full disclosure.
The intelligence committee's chairwoman, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said in a statement Tuesday that the committee voted 12-3 to send Brennan's nomination to the full Senate for confirmation. The panel's deliberations were held behind closed doors. Feinstein said all eight Democrats on the committee voted yes. She did not identify the Republican senators who voted against him.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., the committee vice chairman, said he voted against Brennan because he didn't think Brennan would create the kind of "trust relationship" between Congress and the CIA. He did not specify what his concerns were, however. But Chambliss said he would not encourage other Republican senators to attempt a filibuster of the nomination.
"He'll probably be confirmed," Chambliss said.
Feinstein said the full Senate should act quickly confirm Brennan, who spent 25 years at the CIA before later becoming Obama's top counterterrorism and homeland security adviser in the White House.
Although Brennan has made it out of the committee, Republicans have threatened to hold up his nomination unless the White House supplies them with classified information, including emails among top U.S. national security officials, detailing the Obama administration's actions immediately following the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya. U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed during the raid.
Feinstein said the White House has delivered the "great bulk" of the Benghazi records, and lawmakers are awaiting "a few odds and ends that need to come."
The White House released two out of a total of 11 Justice legal opinions to the intelligence committee just hours before Brennan's Feb. 7 confirmation hearing in front of the panel. Two other memos had already been released to the committee.
Feinstein attributed the White House's resistance to providing the legal opinions to a difference of opinion between lawmakers and the Obama administration over what the documents represented.
"The White House tends to look at this as advice to the president, and therefore that advice is protected," she said. But the committee viewed the opinions as the legal advice that underwrites possible actions by U.S. intelligence agencies that Congress is charged with overseeing. "So there are different views of this," Feinstein said.
Brennan so far has escaped the harsh treatment that former Sen. Chuck Hagel, the president's choice to lead the Defense Department, received from Senate Republicans, even though Brennan is one of Obama's most important national security aides and the White House official who oversees the drone program.
During President George W. Bush's administration, Brennan served as a senior CIA official when waterboarding and other forms of "enhanced interrogation" and detention practices were adopted. Brennan has publicly denounced the use of these tactics, but the cloud hasn't gone completely away.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has said Brennan's stance on waterboarding and torture is inconsistent. Although Brennan has decried these methods, he also has said they saved lives, according to McCain, who said he is awaiting an explanation from Brennan. McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., are also leading the charge for the Benghazi records.
Brennan vigorously defended the use of drone strikes during his confirmation hearing. He declined to say whether he believes waterboarding, which simulates drowning, amounted to torture. But he called the practice "reprehensible" and said it should never be done again. Obama ordered waterboarding banned shortly after taking office.
Drone strikes are employed only as a "last resort," Brennan told the committee. But he also said he had no qualms about going after U.S.-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in September 2011. A drone strike in Yemen killed al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, both U.S. citizens. A drone strike two weeks later killed al-Awlaki's 16-year-old son, a Denver native.
Brennan spent 25 years at the CIA before moving in 2003 from his job as deputy executive director of the agency to run the Terrorist Threat Integration Center. He later worked as interim director of the center's successor organization, the National Counterterrorism Center.
When Bush's second term began in 2005, Brennan left government to work for a company that provides counterterror analysis to federal agencies. After Obama took office in 2009, he returned to the federal payroll as the president's top counterterrorism adviser in the White House.
If confirmed by the full Senate, Brennan would replace Michael Morell, the CIA's deputy director who has been acting director since David Petraeus resigned in November after acknowledging an affair with his biographer.