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McCain renews threat to hold up Brennan confirmation to CIA post

U.S. Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism John Brennan, nominated to be the next Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee Feb. 7, 2013 in Washington, D.C. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Sen. John McCain on Sunday renewed his threat to place a hold on John O. Brennan’s nomination as CIA director, saying his decision depends on Brennan’s answers to his questions about the terrorist attack last September in Benghazi, Libya, and his knowledge of harsh CIA interrogation techniques.

“He needs to answer these questions,” McCain (R-Ariz.) said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “I don’t want to put a hold on anybody, but the American people deserve answers.”

As the administration heads into a crucial week on a range of matters — including the looming deadline for budget sequestration — conflicts over the confirmation of Brennan and Chuck Hagel, President Obama’s nominee for defense secretary, appear far from resolution.

Hagel was approved in a
party-line vote by the Senate Armed Services Committee. McCain said Hagel deserves an “up-or-down” floor vote, likely this week, as soon as additional “questions are answered” and barring “some additional revelation” about some of his long-ago comments regarding Israel and other matters.

The White House has said it has answered all pertinent questions and believes it has the votes for Hagel to be confirmed.

Brennan’s situation remains complicated. In addition to demands by McCain and others for more information on Benghazi and harsh interrogation techniques that critics describe as torture, members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which has not yet voted on his nomination, have insisted the White House provide them with Justice Department memos related to the legality of its targeted-killing campaigns against terrorism suspects overseas.

In a statement last week, a White House official said “we are having conversations with members of Congress about their requests” and repeated Obama’s pledge 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 the world.”

But a senior congressional aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe the behind-the-scenes situation, said Friday that there have been no conversations since Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Intelligence Committee chairman, and Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), the panel’s top Republican, asked for additional documents from Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel after Brennan’s Feb. 7 confirmation hearing.

The administration has stonewalled the requests, the aide said, with claims of “executive privilege and attorney-client privilege.”

Feinstein and Chambliss have said there are 11 Justice opinions related to the killings; the administration has previously allowed committee members to view four. The lawmakers have provided a specific list of the additional documents sought, the aide said.

Administration officials have suggested at various times that at least some of the documents sought do not exist, that they do not contain pertinent information, or that they would reveal sensitive agreements with other nations or about specific intelligence information.

But the aide said the White House has not raised those issues with Feinstein. “They have never said to us that the content is too sensitive” or that she has misconstrued either the content or the number of documents. “There hasn’t really been any response,” the aide said.

In separate demands, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a member of the intelligence panel, and 10 other senators have asked for all documents relating to the administration’s legal justification for targeting U.S. citizens abroad — specifically the case of Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed in a CIA drone attack in Yemen in 2011.

Feinstein has said she will not hold Brennan’s nomination hostage to congressional requests, and he is considered likely to pass a committee vote this week.

Once the nomination goes to the floor, however, Brennan still faces the demands of McCain and others for information on Benghazi and harsh interrogation techniques, in addition to the separate requests for more documents on the administration’s policies on targeted killings.

“They say, ‘Why now?’ ” McCain said of the administration. “It’s the only time we have the maximum leverage. That’s just a fact of life around Washington.”

Karen DeYoung is associate editor and senior national security correspondent for the Washington Post.

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