Pictured: CIA director nominee John Brennan during a meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington on Jan. 31, 2013.
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Most notably, Obama's nominee to head the Central Intelligence Agency, John Brennan, will address what role the targeted killings of terrorists, either by using drone strikes or other means, have played and should play in national security policy.
Questions about targeted killings intensified Monday after a report by NBC News revealed a Justice Department memo which argued it was lawful for the president to target U.S. citizens who are leaders of al-Qaida or "an associated force." Brennan will be appearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee for his confirmation hearing.
On Wednesday, an Obama administration official said the president had directed the Justice Department to give the congressional intelligence committees access to classified memos justifying the targeted killings policy. Until now the administration had refused to do this.
Addressing the past on Thursday will be Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as they testify before the Armed Services Committee about the Sept. 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi.
Senators on the panel -- especially Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. -- want to know how the U.S. military reacted to the attack, and what the Defense Department's internal review revealed after the event.
The two hearings will feature contrasting political color: Republicans -- led by Graham, Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire -- have been the ones who have made an issue of the Benghazi attack almost since it took place. They've implied that a full accounting of what happened was delayed until after the presidential election. Graham held up Obama's nomination of Chuck Hagel to be defense secretary until he could get a chance to question Panetta about Benghazi.
But Obama's drone policy -- directed largely by Brennan in his role as Obama's counter-terrorism adviser -- has drawn criticism both from progressives on the left and those on the right who are fearful of an excessive concentration of power in the presidency.
On Benghazi, much is already known. In its report on the attack, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee said last December that Panetta's Defense Department and Hillary Clinton's State Department hadn't jointly studied the availability of U.S. military forces to defend or rescue the U.S. diplomats in Benghazi in the event of a crisis.
The Pentagon's Africa Command didn't have planes, helicopters, or other forces close to Benghazi on the day of the attack. "The Djibouti base was several thousand miles away. There was no Marine expeditionary unit, carrier group or a smaller group of U.S. ships closely located in the Mediterranean Sea that could have provided aerial or ground support or helped evacuate personnel from Benghazi," the report said.
As for Brennan and drones, Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of a new report called "Reforming U.S. Drone Strike Policies," said Obama's choice of him as CIA director "now places him as the lead executive authority over all CIA drone strikes. The real question is whether John Brennan's move from the White House to Langley to be director of the CIA is in fact an effort for the CIA to get out of the drone strikes business."
Zenko noted that Panetta recently said that the Pentagon, not the CIA, should be conducting the drone strikes against al-Qaida suspects.
But Zenko cautioned against those who would head into the Brennan hearing with high hopes for new information. Having read transcripts of the past 10 CIA director confirmation hearings, he said, "It would be unprecedented if there were an in-depth discussion about ongoing covert activities." The Senate Intelligence Committee "simply doesn't work that way, especially under chairman Sen. (Dianne) Feinstein" of California, he said.
Zenko added that the most useful line of questioning of Brenna would be regarding his conceptions of airpower. Brennan has repeatedly used the cancer analogy for air strikes killing terrorists without damaging the surrounding "tissue."
"That's a dangerous, antiseptic, and unrealistic conception of military force," Zenko said.
SOURCE: Tom Curry, National Affairs Writer