Democratic Senators Cautious on Brennan's Future at CIA

Should CIA Director John Brennan be fired? That’s a question that Democratic senators aren’t speculating on – yet – following serious allegations from Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein that the agency spied on a computer network used by panel staffers.

Lawmakers appeared guarded Wednesday when asked about Brennan’s future; they’re likely waiting on a more extensive response from the director. (On Tuesday, he denied the unlawful spying charges and urged critics to await the results of an ongoing Justice Department inquiry.)

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who has served on the Intelligence Committee since 2001 and voted to confirm Brennan last March, said “What’s important to me now is that Director Brennan answer the questions that the committee through the chair has sent him.”

Putting the Senate’s friction with Brennan in the larger context of congressional mistrust of the CIA and the other intelligence agencies, Wyden noted that it had been one year to the day since (Director of National Intelligence) James Clapper “told the American people that the government doesn’t collect any type of data at all on millions of Americans. That obviously was wrong. Since that time, he or his leaders have given at least five different explanations for the answer he gave.”

“The president said – and I agree – that all of this only works if Congress can do effective oversight over the executive branch,” Wyden said. “The Congress cannot do effective oversight over the executive branch if the intelligence leadership again and again isn’t straight with the Congress and the American people, and you have instances where it is difficult for a committee to carry out an appropriate inquiry.”

Another Intelligence Committee Democrat, Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia would say only “the committee is reviewing this and will have more to say shortly.”

Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., also on the panel, wouldn’t talk to reporters on the CIA topic Wednesday after having done at least two TV interviews Tuesday voicing his lack of confidence in Brennan.

On Rachel Maddow’s MSNBC program Tuesday night Udall said, “I’ve lost confidence in Director Brennan, particularly because he won’t acknowledge the misdeeds and misconduct of the CIA. As Sen. Feinstein in her speech today pointed out, about six weeks ago, he acknowledged to Sen. Feinstein and Sen. Chambliss that the CIA had, in fact, gone into the computers of our intelligence committee staff. Today, he denied it. I don’t understand why he won’t come clean. That’s why I`ve lost confidence in Director Brennan.”

For the senators who do not serve on the Intelligence Committee, assessing whether Brennan and his agency are responding to their Senate overseers is difficult.

Senators who aren’t on the committee have to rely on their 15 colleagues who do serve on the panel.

“The Intelligence Committee is closed group, so what they share in that group is kept in that group. Why the CIA feels they cannot share the information, or be asked questions and not be forthright is a problem,” said Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, who doesn’t serve on the panel.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., also not an Intelligence Committee member, said, “Obviously they’re very serious allegations that need to be investigated and we need to determine whether what Sen. Feinstein said was accurate and if it is, I think action needs to be taken.”

She said she wouldn’t speak to the issue of her confidence in Brennan until senators get answers from the CIA to Feinstein’s allegations.

Begich put the Brennan furor in the bigger privacy context. “I’m no big fan of the NSA, the FISA, the Patriot Act and now this just tells me more that there are far-reaching efforts by the government to go far beyond the law and their ability to look at things for national security.”

He added, “Maybe the CIA got a little confused -- but there are three equal branches here and they should not forget that.”