WASHINGTON – Seeking to clear the way for confirmation of John Brennan to run the CIA, the White House is providing members of the Senate Intelligence Committee with access to all of the top-secret legal opinions that justify the use of lethal drone strikes against terror suspects, the committee's chairwoman announced Tuesday.
Brennan's installation at the spy agency has been held up as 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.
"I am pleased the administration has made this information available," Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said in a statement. "It is important for the committee to do its work and will pave the way for the confirmation of John Brennan to be CIA director."
Even with the agreement on access to the Justice memos, Senate Republicans have been threatening to oppose Brennan's confirmation 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.
Republicans on the committee have expressed frustration with what they described as the White House's reluctant disclosure of the records. "They need to give us everything that's out there," Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho, said Monday.
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.
White House press secretary Jay Carney, asked to explain the about face on providing the committee with greater access, said Tuesday Obama believes that the case presents a "unique and exceptional situation."
"We have worked with the committee to provide information about legal advice, and we have worked with them to meet their concerns in what the president believes is a unique situation and to, in doing so, help expedite confirmation," Carney said. "We look forward to speedy confirmation of John Brennan."
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.
Brennan also served as a senior CIA official during President George W. Bush's administration 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.
Brennan's stance on waterboarding and torture is inconsistent, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has said. 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.
"All we want is the answers," McCain said Monday. "I'm not threatening anything. I just think we deserve the answers."
Senate Republicans put Hagel through a bruising confirmation process. They labeled their former Republican colleague as a political turncoat for attacking the Bush administration's handling of the war in Iraq, and cast him as hostile toward Israel, soft on Iran and unqualified for the job.
In attacking Hagel, who served two terms from Nebraska, the GOP settled old political scores and won points with its conservative base by challenging Obama's nominee so aggressively. The Senate confirmed Hagel last week to replace Leon Panetta as defense secretary on a 58-41 vote, with four Republicans joining the Democrats in backing the contentious choice.
Criticism of Brennan, by contrast, has been less intense. He was grilled for more than three hours during his confirmation hearing, but also won praise from several lawmakers as the best qualified candidate to lead the CIA. Brennan, 57, is a veteran of more than three decades of intelligence work.
Former Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., who spent eight years on the House Intelligence Committee, said she expects Brennan to be confirmed by a comfortable margin. Senate Republicans took Hagel's nomination personally, she said, and they're unlikely to take a similar approach with Brennan.
"I don't think they're going to try the same play twice and really seriously wound Obama's national security team at a time when it's very important that we project strength," said Harman, president of the Wilson Center in Washington.
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.
Graham, one of Hagel's most acerbic critics, said last month that the Obama administration deserved an "A-plus" for its drone program and he rejected an idea floated by Feinstein and other senators to establish a special court system to regulate drone strikes.
"I'm 100 percent behind the administration," Graham said. "I think their program has been legal, ethical and wise."
But Graham, along with McCain, said the failure to turn over the Benghazi records is a dealbreaker. Graham said Sunday on CBS' "Face the Nation" that he and McCain "are hell-bent on making sure the American people understand this debacle called Benghazi."
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.
Associated Press writers Donna Cassata and Jim Kuhnhenn contributed to this report.