Now that Chuck Hagel's confirmation has gone off without a hitch (for the most part), it's John Brennan's turn to take the spotlight, and it look like those drone memos will be a real roadblock. We could've guessed as much a couple of weeks ago when a Justice Department "white paper" revealed details of how the Obama administration decides to kill American citizens in the war on terror. However, as the issue quietly hid in the shadow of Hagel's confirmation hearing, the neverending battle over the sequester and Seth MacFarlane's offensive Oscar performance, some senators still want to know why the Obama administration won't release all of the drone memos. The New York Times's Jeremy Peters reports that "Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, said Tuesday that he thought the confirmation process should continue to play out, and he indicated that he was willing to help delay it until Mr. Brennan answered further questions about drones." Sen. Rand Paul also wants answers.
As far as these drone memos are concerned, the Obama administration's been walking a fine line between actual transparency and appearing to be transparent. The White House won points after the Justice Department white paper leaked for making two legal opinions on the government's use of drones available to senators. The memos were only shown to the senators, though — no legislative aids, no drone experts, nobody — and only for a limited amount of time. (Just curious: Did somebody have to watch the senators read the documents so that they didn't take Instagram photos of them or anything? Probably…) The administration hoped that this would be enough to satisfy members of the Senate Intelligence Committee so that they'd give Brennan the green light. A vote is expected on Thursday.
Obviously, what's in the drone memos isn't the only issue at stake in Brennan's confirmation, but it's arguably the biggest, given the scope of the issue. Some Senate Republicans, like John McCain, would rather have more access to a trail of emails with information about the September 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. However, he's not necessarily willing to keep Brennan from taking office if he doesn't get it. "He needs to answer these questions," McCain said Sunday on CNN. "I don't want to put a hold on anybody, but the American people deserve answers." Those Benghazi could actually be Brennan's Get Out of Jail Free card, since the White House gave some lawmakers and aides access to the emails on Tuesday, possibly as a concession for withholding the drone memos.
We may never know whether or not the White House traded the Benghazi emails for amnesty from revealing the drone memos. We do know that the urgency on Capitol Hill to get those drone memos now is at a peak this week, when the Senate's expected to vote on Brennan's nomination. There is a very real fear that this might be Congress's last shot at getting an inside look at the Obama administration's drone program. Though he was talking about a different Obama administration secret, McCain explained the timing well, "They say, 'Why now?' It's the only time we have the maximum leverage. That's just a fact of life around Washington."