In the past few weeks, senators have been so focused on squabbling over the nomination of Chuck Hagel as secretary of Defense that it seemed like John Brennan would have a relatively easy time being confirmed as director of the CIA. However, following NBC News's release yesterday of a Justice Department white paper that outlines the administration's legal justification for conducting drone strikes against Americans suspected of terrorism, Brennan's nomination is quickly morphing into a showdown over the Obama administration's drone policy. Now the New York Times has added more fuel to the controversy, revealing that the United States has a secret CIA drone base in Saudi Arabia that's used to conduct strikes in neighboring Yemen.
The Saudi base, which was constructed two years ago, was first used to launch the drones that killed American-born Al Qaeda preacher Anwar al-Awlaki. Though much of the debate has focused on the targeting of U.S. citizens, only four Americans have been killed in U.S. airstrikes in Yemen since 2002. By comparison, at least 24 people have already been killed by U.S. drones in Yemen this year, and since the campaign started more than 3,000 militants and civilians have been killed in strikes in Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia.
As the the White House's chief counterterrorism adviser, Brennan is the main coordinator of the terrorist "kill list" and oversees the drone strikes conducted by both the military and the CIA. Brennan was previously the CIA's station chief in Saudi Arabia, and urged the Obama administration to take the threat from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the terrorist network's Yemen affiliate, more seriously.
Interestingly, some journalists have known about the "secret" Saudi base for some time. The Washington Post says it didn't disclose the location at the administration's request, but it "learned Tuesday night that another news organization was planning to reveal the location of the base, effectively ending an informal arrangement among several news organizations that had been aware of the location for more than a year." The Post reports that it's just one of a "growing constellation of drone bases" operated by the U.S. overseas.
For years, critics of the drone campaign have been calling on Obama to make good on his pledge to have the "most transparent administration in history," and with Brennan's nomination, now they feel they finally have a bit of leverage. As Senator Ron Wyden, a member of the Intelligence Committee, told the Post, "If the Congress doesn’t get answers to these questions now, it’s going to be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to get them in the future." It sounds like Brennan's Senate confirmation hearing on Thursday is going to get ugly.