WASHINGTON — The Senate Intelligence Committee approved John Brennan as the next CIA director, ending weeks of tense delay and setting the stage for the full Senate to vote on President Obama's last major pick for his national security Cabinet.
The committee voted 12 to 3 in a closed-door hearing Tuesday to endorse Brennan, hours after the White House agreed to give the House and Senate intelligence committees secret Justice Department opinions on the targeted killings of terrorism suspects overseas and records from the September attacks at U.S. diplomatic and intelligence compounds in Benghazi, Libya.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the committee chairwoman, praised Brennan after the vote and said the CIA "needs oversight, needs supervision, needs direction. And it needs a director."
A veteran CIA officer, Michael Morrell, has served as acting director of the spy agency since David H. Petraeus resigned in November in a sex scandal.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said he wanted the full Senate to consider Brennan's nomination by week's end. Brennan is widely expected to win confirmation.
Brennan, 57, the son of immigrants from Roscommon, Ireland, spent a quarter of a century at the CIA, including stints as an analyst, station chief in Saudi Arabia and as chief of staff to then-director George Tenet. He has been the White House counter-terrorism advisor for the last four years.
Brennan's bid to become CIA director in Obama's first term fell apart over questions about his involvement in harsh CIA interrogations of terrorism suspects after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Brennan said he opposed the use of waterboarding, stress positions and other tactics that the CIA later abandoned.
At the White House, Brennan has presided over a dramatic escalation of CIA drone strikes against suspected militants in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, as well as other operations.
Both Democrats and Republicans in Congress used Brennan's nomination to demand answers on who gets put on the "kill list" and whether the highly classified program has adequate oversight. That led to more delays than is typical for a Democratic-controlled Senate in considering the choice of a Democratic president.
A Senate Intelligence Committee vote scheduled for Feb. 14 was twice postponed as members sought secret Justice Department memos laying out the legal justification for the White House decision to target and kill Anwar Awlaki. A CIA drone strike killed the American-born Al Qaeda cleric in Yemen in September 2011.
The White House provided two of the classified opinions to the committee before Brennan's Feb. 12 confirmation hearing, and agreed Monday night to make the rest available before the vote, Feinstein said. The White House also agreed, in response to Feinstein's complaints, to allow a staff aide for each committee member to review the memos.
Human rights groups said the administration needed to do more to ensure stronger oversight of the drone program.
"This is an important step forward, but it's woefully inadequate to guarantee robust oversight of the targeted killing program," said Raha Wala, counsel for Human Rights First, a nonpartisan group. "As far as we know, these memos cover only one targeting decision — the targeting of Anwar al Awlaki — in the hundreds that have occurred during the Bush and Obama administrations."
All memos regarding any aspect of the CIA drone campaign should be turned over to Congress, he said.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the ranking Republican on the Intelligence Committee, was one of three who voted no. He said he wanted a "stronger trust relationship with the CIA than what I thought Mr. Brennan could bring."
But he didn't indicate an appetite for further delays.
"I don't intend to encourage a filibuster of Mr. Brennan," he said. "I think it'll run its normal course, and he'll probably be confirmed."
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who is not on the Intelligence Committee, had vowed to delay the vote until the White House assures him it has no authority to target an American within the United States under the drone program. But Paul acknowledged he probably could not find enough senators to support a filibuster, which can be defeated by 60 votes.
Paul received a letter from Brennan saying the CIA had no authority to conduct drone strikes on U.S. soil, a congressional source said. He got a second letter from Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. that did not rule out the use of armed drones by any agency of the government, and he remains unsatisfied, the source said. But it's unclear whether he will filibuster.