John Brennan: Why Did the GOP Initially Oppose Him, Then Backpedal?

After weeks of speculation, President Obama’s nomination of John Brennan for the position of CIA director was reported favorably to the full Senate body. Being a man with a controversial record on torture and part of a controversial administration (on drone strikes and the Libya attack), he was a lightning rod of criticism from both the left and right. Examining the statements of the committee’s 19 members, it seemed like Brennan might be left hung out to dry. President Obama had seven Democrats in hand, but was one short thanks to Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, who has allied himself with Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and refused to approve Brennan unless he sees the administration’s memos on its drone strike policy. With the exception of Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, no Republican could be counted on to cross the aisle. 

Yet, when the vote was announced only three Republicans opposed the nomination. What happened? The fact of the matter is that Republican attacks against Brennan were contradictory and weak and most of the Republicans who opposed the nomination are up for reelection and want to avoid a primary battle.

When it came to attacking Brennan, Republican comments questioned whether Brennan was actually opposed to "interrogation" back when it first came up and whether he denied that it produced valuable information, which they contend it did. They wanted to have things both ways, to smear Brennan and to bolster their own position. They wanted to simultaneously and contradictorily paint him as an advocate of torture to liberals and to reinforce their claim that such means worked in preventing terrorist attacks, a game Brennan repeatedly refused to play. He admitted that he did classify waterboarding as torture, that the information he thought previously it had generated proved hollow after reading several classified reports on the subject, and that the Army’s interrogation techniques should not be used throughout the government. Republicans had nothing to work with.

On top of that, Republican senators also attacked Brennan as being the source of various national security leaks, specifically the accidental exposure of a double agent within Al-Qaeda’s Yemen branch last year. Who could trust a spymaster who leaked secrets like a sieeve? Unfortunately, basing an argument on hearsay almost never wins, and after Brennan promised to get the CIA out of paramilitary work to cooperate more closely with the committee (to make sure to leak secrets to them), many senators from both parties were won over. As Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) said, "With the exception of Mr. Panetta, I feel I’ve been jerked around by every CIA director." They were grateful that at least someone wouldn’t keep them in the dark.

Confronted with such a weak case and by a man with decades of experience in the agency he was called to lead, most Republicans caved except those up for reelection this year, like Vice Chairman Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and Sen. James Risch of Idaho. As Sen. Lindsey Graham demonstrates every time he opens his mouth, a man afraid of a primary challenge will say a lot of things to keep his seat, whatever the truth may be. More interestingly, even Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida voted in favor of Brennan despite challenging Brennan’s notion that the CIA doesn’t have any authority to detain people and shouldn’t sneak into a foreign country and unilaterally snatch their citizens without that government’s consent. He seems to be counting on people knowing what he says, but not how he votes. 

With the nomination out of committee and out on the Senate floor, the next stage of the battle has begun, with Senators Rand Paul of Kentucky and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina already vowing to issue a hold on Brennan until they get as many documents on drone strikes and the Libya attack as they please. Fortunately, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada has already announced that he will not honor their hold, sparing all of us yet another interminable debate full of baseless innuendo and character assassination. Even the patience of the Senate has its limits, and no one wants to see endless battles over every individual President Obama puts forward. Brennan will likely find that in his case, the second time is the charm for getting the office he really wants.

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John Doble

John is a political junkie and a native of Minnesota. His primary interests are politics, history, and neoclassical moral education. He has previously interned at the Truman National Security Project, the Stimson Center, both houses of Congress, and for the Governor of Wisconsin. John has an M.A. in International Affairs from American University and a B.A. in Political Science and History from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Any views expressed here are his alone.

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