President Barack Obama’s administration, according to the New York Times, is reportedly in talks with Republicans on providing more information on the attack on a US diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya. Administration officials hope this will secure enough votes so John Brennan can be confirmed to the position of CIA chief without the administration having to provide all the memos on the targeted killing program to Democratic senators demanding to see them.
From the Times:
The strategy is intended to produce a bipartisan majority vote for Mr. Brennan in the Senate Intelligence Committee without giving its members seven additional legal opinions on targeted killing sought by senators and while protecting what the White House views as the confidentiality of the Justice Department’s legal advice to the president. It would allow Mr. Brennan’s nomination to go to the Senate floor even if one or two Democrats vote no to protest the refusal to share more legal memos.
The administration is currently in discussions with Republican members of the Intelligence Committee about providing the trail of e-mails that were the basis of “talking points” from the intelligence agencies regarding the Sept. 11 attack in Benghazi, which killed the American ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens, and three other Americans. Such a concession would probably win at least some Republican votes for Mr. Brennan.
During a Google+ Hangout Fireside chat on February 14, President Barack Obama answered questions from Americans. Each person selected to ask a question had used YouTube or Google+ to effectively build audiences or communities around social issues.
He was asked about promising to be the most transparent administration in American history by African-American conservative blogger Kira Davis. She mentioned Benghazi:
…In 2008, you ran on a platform of really trying to become one of the most transparent administrations in American history. However, with recent leaked guidelines regarding drone strikes on American citizens and Benghazi and closed-door hearings on the budget and deficit, it just feels a lot less transparent than I think we had all hoped it would be. How has the reality of the presidency changed that promise? And what can we do moving forward to kind of get back to that promise?
Obama responded to the mention of Benghazi:
There are a handful of issues, mostly around national security, where people have legitimate questions, where there’s still concern about whether or not we have all the information we need. Benghazi, by the way, is not a good example of that. That was largely driven by campaign stuff because everything about—We’ve had more testimony and more paper provided to Congress than ever before and Congress is sort of running out of things to ask. [emphasis added]
However, when it comes to keeping legal opinions justifying the targeted killing program or the use of drones from getting into the hands of senators entitled under the law to read them, apparently there are an array of questions the Obama administration is willing to answer to avoid transparency.
Obama stated during the Fireside chat:
…I’m the head of the executive branch and what we’ve done so far is try to work with Congress on oversight issues, but part of what I’m going to have to work with Congress on is to make sure that whatever it is that we’re providing Congress that we have mechanisms to also make sure that the public also understands what’s going on, what the constraints are, what the legal parameters are and that’s something that I take very seriously. I am not somebody who believes that the president has the authority to do whatever he wants or whatever she wants whenever they want just under the guise of counterterrorism. There have to be checks and balances on it…
Though he did not specifically mention the drone programs—because the administration is playing a secrecy game where they do not say “drone” or acknowledge programs exist in order to keep records concealed from the public, his reference to “counterterrorism” and “checks and balances” was a reference to the issue of targeted killings.
Evidently, this is another case where his beliefs come with a caveat. The president does not have the authority to do whatever he wants under the guise of counterterrorism except when it needs to withhold secret legal opinions of the Justice Department from senators, which is clearly an abuse of authority comparable to President George W. Bush’s withholding of documents on the use of torture techniques on detainees.
Additionally, as pointed out by the Times, Obama declared in his State of the Union address on February 12:
I recognize that in our democracy, no one should just take my word that we’re doing things the right way. So, in the months ahead, I will continue to engage with Congress to ensure not only that our targeting, detention and prosecution of terrorists remains consistent with our laws and system of checks and balances, but that our efforts are even more transparent to the American people and to the world.
While taking questions during the Fireside chat, Obama repeated the slogan he wants Americans to associate with his administration: “The Most Transparent and Ethical Administration in the History of the United States.” Making moves behind the scenes to prevent senators from accessing legal opinions is the reverse of being ethical and transparent.
There are at least two senators on the intelligence committee, both Democrats, who have requested to see all the legal memos before voting for Brennan: Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado and Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon.
The issue is compounded by the fact that Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat of California, is a fawning supporter of Brennan, who has expressed willingness to vote for him even if the administration does not provide the memos.
Just look at the picture at the top of the Times story. Feinstein is looking up at Brennan with ogling eyes, as if to say I have a crush on powerful people. Brennan is standing tall, looking forward and grinning as if to say, I got this chairwoman wrapped around my finger and the CIA will have no problems over drones, rendition, interrogations, detentions or other covert operations with her as chairwoman.
At the confirmation hearing, Brennan stated, “I want every Member of this Committee to be an ardent advocate, proponent, and defender of the men and women of the Central Intelligence Agency. And I see it as my obligation to represent them to you on their behalf, so that when times get tough, and when people are going to be criticizing and complaining about the CIA, I have all of you to say you knew about what the CIA was doing, you supported it, and you will defend it.”
It was a call for the committee to be subservient to the CIA and not really provide oversight. And based on how Feinstein handled the hearing, any future episodes after his confirmation will be what The Nation‘s Jeremy Scahill called “kabuki oversight.” They will be nauseating scenes where it appears the committee is checking the power of the CIA—like when Feinstein had Brennan basically give Anwar Al-Awlaki, the US-born Muslim cleric killed by a drone strike, a kind of posthumous trial. There will be no real pressure on the CIA or Obama administration to be transparent and ethical. There will just be Feinstein gazing at powerful people whom she finds to be awesome in their power.