Nomination a chance to talk about drones, torture

The nomination of John Brennan as CIA director is getting somewhat lost in the controversy over the Chuck Hagel nomination. Brennan’s reported support for Bush-era torture programs – which he has denied – and his oversight of President Obama’s drone program are causing ripples, but mostly within rarefied precincts on the left.

The nomination, however, creates an opportunity. What if senators use his confirmation hearings to force a public debate about the legality and transparency of Obama’s drone-strike program and the need for meaningful congressional oversight? A hearing could initiate discussion about torture, the Bush war on terror and continuity between the two administrations on civil-liberties issues.

Obama administration officials are reportedly developing a clear, transparent rationale for drone strikes. Its failure to do this has continued to draw sharp criticism from civil-liberties advocates. One hopes that, at his confirmation hearings, Brennan would be pressed to explain this rationale and, more broadly, what the administration will do to strive for some kind of international consensus around drones and the rules of war in the 21st century.

Brennan, a career CIA official, will almost certainly be asked to detail the extent of his support for – or at least his failure to put a stop to – Bush-era torture techniques. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Monday that he intends to press Brennan to detail his role.

Beyond this, the hearings may be able to establish a real accounting into the legacy of Bush-era torture programs. Brennan is likely to be pushed on how forthcoming he believes the CIA should be when it comes to a massive report that examines those programs. Senate Democrats have just completed the report, and Brennan needs to tell senators whether he supports its public release.

“Will he assure us that he’s not going to stand in the way of the American people understanding what the U.S. government did when it engaged in torture, rendition and secret prisons?” Laura Murphy, a senior official at the American Civil Liberties Union, asked me.

Hopefully, the hearings will help force the facts around a variety of activities, including torture and drone strikes, out of the shadows.

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