WASHINGTON - After lagging for weeks, John Brennan's nomination to be CIA director is on the fast track to Senate confirmation after the White House agreed to give lawmakers access to top-secret legal opinions justifying the use of lethal drone strikes against terror suspects.
The Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday overwhelmingly approved President Barack Obama's pick to lead the spy agency, clearing the way for the full Senate to confirm Brennan as early as Thursday. The tally was 12-3, with four Republicans on the committee siding with the eight Democrats on the panel.
The committee's chairwoman, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, is calling for swift approval of Brennan's nomination. If confirmed, Brennan would replace Michael Morell, the CIA's deputy director who has been acting director since David Petraeus resigned in November after acknowledging an affair with his biographer.
"He's got a whole chain of duties as the No. 2 and it's hard to be No. 1 at the same time," Feinstein said Tuesday of Morell. "This is an agency that most of us think needs oversight, needs supervision and needs direction. It needs a director."
The Republican vice chairman of the committee, Sen. Saxby Chambliss, a Republican, voted against the nomination because he didn't think Brennan would create the type of "trust relationship" that needs to exist between the agency and Congress.
But Chambliss said he would not encourage his Republican colleagues to try and hold up Brennan's installation at the CIA. Republicans had threatened to delay a vote unless the White House also delivered more detailed records about the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya.
"I don't intend to encourage a filibuster of Mr. Brennan," Chambliss said following the committee's vote. "I think it will run its normal course and he'll probably be confirmed."
Brennan so far has escaped the harsh treatment that former Sen. Chuck Hagel, the president's choice to lead the Defense Department, received from Senate Republicans.
But Republican senators, John McCain and Lindsey Graham, have said they will oppose Brennan's nomination on the Senate floor if they don't get classified information, including emails among top U.S. national security officials, detailing the Obama administration's actions immediately following the attack last September in Benghazi that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
Feinstein said the White House has supplied the "great bulk" of the Benghazi records, and lawmakers are awaiting just "a few odds and ends that need to come."
Brennan currently serves as Obama's top counterterrorism adviser in the White House. He was nominated by the president in early January and the Intelligence Committee held his confirmation hearing on Feb. 7. But action on the appointment stalled as committee members wrangled with the White House over the classified legal opinions prepared by the Justice Department that outline the use of unmanned spy planes to kill al-Qaida suspects overseas, including American citizens.
The White House released two of 11 legal opinions to the Intelligence Committee just hours before Brennan's confirmation hearing. Two other memos had already been released to the committee.
Intelligence Committee members had argued they can't perform adequate oversight without reviewing the contents of the opinions, but the White House had resisted requests for full disclosure. Just hours before voting on Brennan's nomination, Feinstein announced the White House had agreed to provide all the opinions.
Feinstein attributed the White House's resistance to providing the memos to a difference of opinion between lawmakers and the Obama administration over what the documents represented.
"The White House tends to look at this as advice to the president, and therefore that advice is protected," she said. But the committee viewed the opinions as the legal advice that underwrites possible actions by U.S. intelligence agencies that Congress is charged with overseeing. "So there are different views of this," Feinstein said.
Brennan vigorously defended the use of drone strikes during his confirmation hearing. He declined to say whether he believes waterboarding, which simulates drowning, amounted to torture. But he called the practice "reprehensible" and said it should never be done again. Obama ordered waterboarding banned shortly after taking office.
Drone strikes are employed only as a "last resort," Brennan told the committee. But he also said he had no qualms about going after U.S.-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in September 2011. A drone strike in Yemen killed al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, both U.S. citizens. A drone strike two weeks later killed al-Awlaki's 16-year-old son, a Denver native.
Brennan spent 25 years at the CIA before moving in 2003 from his job as deputy executive director of the agency to run the Terrorist Threat Integration Center. He later worked as interim director of the center's successor organization, the National Counterterrorism Center.
When Bush's second term began in 2005, Brennan left government to work for a company that provides counterterror analysis to federal agencies. After Obama took office in 2009, he returned to the federal payroll as the president's top counterterrorism adviser in the White House.