WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democratic leaders are hoping for a U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee vote next week on the confirmation of John Brennan to become Central Intelligence Agency director, although the White House and committee are still feuding over the disclosure of politically sensitive documents.
Under pressure from Senate Republicans, the White House in recent days has reluctantly agreed to allow Congress access to documents and emails related to the attacks by militants last September 11 on U.S. facilities in Benghazi, Libya, congressional officials said.
Among the materials senators and some aides will be allowed to examine are dozens of emails that chronicle the evolution of “talking points” used by Obama administration representatives in media appearances, which officials later acknowledged mischaracterized the origin of the attacks.
This latest attempt to appease lawmakers, who last week stalled a committee vote on Brennan’s nomination, comes after the White House earlier this month agreed to give senators tightly restricted access to four classified legal opinions on drone strikes.
However, senators want more documents.
Congressional officials said the White House was still refusing to allow senators access to what Congress believes are at least seven highly classified documents, produced by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, that lay out legal justifications and operational guidelines for “targeted killings,” a euphemism mainly used for drone strikes, including attacks on U.S. citizens.
A White House spokesman had no immediate comment.
The congressional officials said it appears the White House may be dragging its feet on the drone documents on the theory that most or all Democrats on the intelligence committee and in the full Senate will vote to confirm Brennan despite unresolved disclosure disputes.
The officials said that a Senate Intelligence Committee vote could be scheduled as early as next Tuesday, though it could be further delayed. A floor vote on Brennan’s confirmation would not be likely until the following week at the earliest.
The conflict over Brennan’s nomination has been compounded by Republican senators’ opposition to the nomination of former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel as defense secretary.
The Senate’s Democratic leadership had hoped to hold a floor vote to confirm Hagel last week, before Congress took a week-long recess. But the vote was postponed after Democrats failed to muster enough Republican votes to shut down a filibuster by Hagel’s critics.
It now looks like a full Senate vote on Hagel could come Tuesday or Wednesday.
Few, if any, senators of either party have publicly indicated an intention to vote against or filibuster Brennan’s nomination, although both Republicans and Democrats asked pointed questions at Brennan’s hearing earlier this month, particularly about why as a CIA official he did not try to stop waterboarding, an interrogation technique that some consider torture.
The nomination became a vehicle for a fight over documents between Congress and the White House.
Democrats, including intelligence committee Chairwoman Senator Dianne Feinstein, have pressed the administration to give them access to 11 Justice Department memos on targeted killings. But as of Friday they had only been granted access to four.
The administration has asserted that the seven documents it is refusing to disclose are the product of a “deliberative process” and exempt from disclosure to Congress. It is unclear whether any intelligence committee members, most notably Democrats, would be sufficiently angered by the administration’s recalcitrance to vote against Brennan.
The administration does appear to have backed down from its refusal to give lawmakers access to Benghazi-related documents.
This week the administration agreed to allow senators and a limited number of aides to read and take notes on the Benghazi material, though the administration refused to allow Congress to make copies of it, congressional officials said.
The access comes after the administration had asserted for months that the email record charting the evolution of the Benghazi talking points was exempt from disclosure to Congress on “deliberative process” grounds, as it has recently been asserting for the undisclosed drone documents.
Susan Rice, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, was lambasted by Republicans for claiming in TV talk show appearances that the Benghazi attacks grew out of a protest against an anti-Islamic film. Administration officials now admit the protest never happened.
Sources familiar with the email traffic said it shows that the talking points, as originally drafted by a CIA analyst, said the September 11 attacks were carried out by extremists “with links to al-Qaeda.” But the al-Qaeda reference was deleted before a final version was delivered to administration spokespeople, including Rice.
Editing by Karey Wutkowski and Eric Walsh