Panel to vote Thursday on Brennan

Members of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee will decide on Thursday whether to approve White House nominee John Brennan to become the nation's top spy.

Committee members will take up Brennan's nomination for CIA director after hearing the White House counterterrorism chief's thoughts during a classified hearing before the panel on Tuesday.

Brennan is expected to clear the committee and be confirmed by the Senate despite the controversy over the Obama administration's drone strikes on American terrorist suspects overseas. 

The closed hearing with Brennan on Tuesday will focus on efforts to thwart al Qaeda and its affiliates across the globe, particularly the group's increasing presence in North and West Africa, panel Chairwoman Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said last Thursday.

Feinstein told The Hill that moves by the Senate Intelligence and Judiciary panels to explore new court authorities to oversee the Obama administration's armed drone program will be on hold until her panel weighs in on Brennan.

"'We really haven't put anything together [yet]," Feinstein said Tuesday when asked about the the possible creation of a new federal court to oversee armed drone strikes.

"We will look into it, [but] we are trying to get the Brennan nomination done first," she added.

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Feinstein and other Senate panel members grilled Brennan last week over his role in the Obama administration's aggressive use of armed drones against suspected terrorists during the open session of the presumptive CIA chief's confirmation hearing.

Brennan gave a forceful defense of the drone program, which a Department of Justice white paper leaked last week said was legal even when used to kill U.S. citizens who are suspected of terrorism.

Even before his testimony, Brennan stressed to senators in written responses to their questions that the drone strikes are executed with "extraordinary care."

Brennan said drones “dramatically reduce the danger to U.S. personnel and to innocent civilians,” and that the CIA takes measures to prevent them from causing unnecessary harm.

He also said he did not believe new legislation was needed to authorize the use of drones.

But Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the leading critic in Congress of the drone program, pressed Brennan on the lack of information on the program, and its legality.

"[Don’t Americans] have the right to know when their government has the right to kill them?" Wyden asked.

In response, Brennan gave a careful defense of the program but also pledged that under his direction, the CIA would be as open and transparent as possible about the use of armed drones.

After the hearing, Feinstein said she and other senators were weighing the creation of a new court to oversee the drone program, patterned after the intelligence oversight responsibilities under the Foreign Intelligence and Surveillance Act (FISA).

FISA established a special federal court to approve surveillance on suspected foreign spies working inside the United States.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) and Ranking Member Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) have also indicated "their concern and interest" in introducing some sort of FISA-like legal check on the administration's authority to execute armed drone strikes, the California Democrat said.

On Sunday, during an appearance on NBC's "Meet The Press," Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill), the chairman of the Judiciary committee's subpanel on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights, said hearings were in the works.

Congress needs to strike "a new constitutional balance" on the use of armed drones, specifically whether the use of drone strikes in foreign countries constitute an act of war, he said.