WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Senate Intelligence Committee voted overwhelmingly on Tuesday to approve John Brennan as President Barack Obama’s new CIA director, after the committee resolved a dispute with the White House over access to classified legal opinions on the targeted killings of U.S. citizens overseas.
The vote clears a major hurdle for Brennan, currently Obama’s top counter-terrorism adviser. While he seems likely to ultimately win confirmation by the full Senate, his nomination still could face further delays from Republican lawmakers.
The committee vote, at a closed-door meeting, was 12-3, according to Senator Dianne Feinstein, the committee’s Democratic chairwoman.
The “no” votes were cast by Republican Senators Tom Coburn, Saxby Chambliss and James Risch. But other Republican committee members joined the panel’s majority Democrats in voting to approve Brennan’s nomination.
It was not immediately clear when the full Senate might hold a floor vote on the nomination. A Congressional official said a floor vote later this week might prove difficult due to an anticipated snowstorm in the Washington, D.C. area on Wednesday.
Some Republican Senators are seeking to delay that vote while they press the White House to release additional information on the U.S. response to the attacks last September 11 on U.S. official outposts in Benghazi, Libya.
Feinstein said after the committee meeting that while she expected a floor vote soon, she also believed that the Democrats would have to assemble 60 votes to ensure the defeat of a possible Republican filibuster, a delaying tactic. At least a handful of Republicans would have to vote with majority Democrats and two independent Senators to cut off any filibuster.
“I believe we can get 60 votes,” Feinstein said.
Last week, the Intelligence Committee put off a vote on Brennan because of squabbling between committee members, including both Democrats and Republicans, and the White House over Congressional access to sensitive documents related to the Benghazi attacks and to the administration’s use of armed drone aircraft to attack suspected militants.
After Tuesday’s vote, Feinstein declared her belief “both of these issues had been addressed.”
The most contentious issue, which temporarily put some Democrats at odds with the White House, was the disclosure of drone-related documents.
Committee members had demanded access to 11 highly classified legal documents, produced by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, laying out the administration’s legal justifications and operational rules for “targeted killing,” a euphemism usually used for drone strikes.
As of last week, the administration had allowed committee members access only to four of the documents.
On Tuesday, Congressional sources said the White House and committee had agreed to a deal under which the committee would get access to two more documents, but would not be able to keep copies of them on Capitol Hill.
Three committee members who had been pressing the White House on the issue, Democrats Mark Udall and Ron Wyden and Republican Susan Collins, said in a statement before the vote that they planned to support Brennan because the administration had now given the committee “full access” to documents outlining the President’s authority to conduct “targeted killings of Americans in counter-terrorism operations.”
Congressional officials acknowledged, however, that this meant that the White House did not fully disclose to the committee other legal documents related to targeted killings, including documents related to the use of such operations against non-Americans.
In an interview, Wyden told Reuters that the “killing of non-Americans also has got to have a thorough and extensive analysis,” and that he would continue to press “very vigorously” for relevant information.
Wyden said that the tussle between the committee and White House over disclosing documents had been “pretty spirited.” He said that he would press the administration to declassify key documents related to the use of drones and would ask tough questions both in public and private. “This debate has barely begun,” Wyden said.
Republican Senator Rand Paul, a White House critic who is not an intelligence committee member, on Tuesday released a letter he received from Attorney General Eric Holder in which Holder said the administration had “not carried out drone strikes in the United States and has no intention of doing so.”
However, Holder added that it was “possible, I suppose, to imagine an extraordinary circumstance in which it would be necessary and appropriate ... for the president to authorize the military to use lethal force within the territory of the United States.” He cited as examples the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and the al Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. on September 11, 2001.
Editing by Sandra Maler and Eric Walsh