Obama first wanted John Brennan as CIA chief in 2009 – but his support for Bush-era rendition and torture meant he was too controversial at the time.
Now Brennan, who has renounced techniques such as waterboarding,has a second chance but remains controversial, not least because he is seen as the mastermind behind Obama’s drone war.
The US does not release details about its drone activity, but it was revealed this week to have been launching drone strikes against suspected Al-Qaeda militants in Yemen from a base in Saudi Arabia.
In Pakistan, some estimates put the total number of people killed by missiles launched from drones at about 3,400 including almost 900 civilians and about 170 children. Others say civilians account for about one in 10 drone deaths.
But Christopher Swift, Adjunct Professor of National Security Studies at Georgetown University, says drone strikes enjoy broad political support in the US.
“For Republicans it’s consistent with their desire to take a strong approach to the war on terrorism,” he said. “And for Democrats there’s a strong desire to adopt a light footprint approach to these situations rather than being engaged in large resource-intensive operations as we saw in Afghanistan and Iraq.”
There has been some controversy about whether it is lawful under US law for the US to use drones to assassinate US citizens abroad.
Under pressure from Senators who threatened to impede Brennan’s nomination, the White House has agreed to provide its legal justification for the killing of American Anwar al Awlaki in Yemen in 2011.
But other countries such as Russia want more clarity about the status of drone killings under international law.
Mark Sleboda, a senior lecturer in international relations and security studies at Moscow State University said: “What concerns the Russian government is the US acting with impunity with regard to international law and that’s where they will take a close look at Brennan”.
“The UN recently launched an investigation into the legality under international law of drone strikes. Those requesting this were Pakistan and two unnamed members of the UN security council. We know who they are – Russia and China.”
John Brennan is an Arabist who has spent 25 years working for the CIA. He was station chief in Saudi Arabia in the 1990s and chief of staff under George Tenet in the years after 9/11.
In a speech last year, he said drone strikes had put Al Qaeda “on the road to destruction”.
“The most important question is whether he has the faith and the trust of the president and in that I think John Brennan is eminently qualified to be CIA director,” he said. “The bigger question is whether our operations in Pakistan and Yemen are properly aligned with our long-term policy goals in these places.”
But Swift argues that America’s drone programme, while effective in killing Al Qaeda members, risked creating strong resentment against the US.
Swift himself travelled to Yemen to find out if drone strikes were inspiring more Yemenis to join Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
“I went there with the assumption that drones were causing Al Qaeda recruiting and what I heard from tribal leaders is that everyone is really mad about drones but really it’s about the breakdown of Yemeni society – their economy and ecology – that’s driving people into the insurgency,” he said.
“Popular resentment in Yemen at US drone strikes is so strong that it’s starting to undermine the political transition that the US and Saudi Arabia want to see there.
“The drones are encouraging people to see the situation in Yemen as one where foreign actors are interfering with their ability to chart their own future, and that has a lot of resonance with the Arab Spring generation in Yemen.”
Swift says not enough attention is paid in the counter-terrorism debate to more mundane issues, such as nutrition.
“We’re interested in the platforms rather than the policies because they are easy to fetishise because they are new, interesting and shiny and they remind us of Hollywood movies. But the solution in places like Yemen or Pakistan has a lot to do with what local people on the ground think and do and live every day,” he said.
“The further away we get from that in terms of our policy discussions, the more divorced our operations are going to be from reality.”
Moscow State University’s Mark Sleboda, who served in the US military for six years, says drones will be Obama’s legacy. “Personally I find Brennan’s nomination extremely scary and even horrific. He’s dubbed in the American press as the ‘assassination czar’,” he said.
“I believe that Obama’s legacy once he leaves office will be drones. He will be known not as the Nobel Peace prize laureate or the first African-American president but as the drone king.”
The UN drones probe will examine evidence that drone strikes can cause disproportionate civilian casualties and come up with recommendations on the duty of states to investigate such allegations.
It is due to report to the UN general assembly in October.