The White House initially seemed unfazed by revelations that the CIA had spied on Senate staffers reviewing the spy agency’s use of enhanced interrogation techniques.
As it did when other agency chiefs came under fire, the White House dismissed calls for the head of CIA Director John Brennan, labeling the matter a “misunderstanding” and trying to move past the embarrassing episode. President Obama Friday said he had "full confidence" in Brennan.
But it won't be that easy, for one simple reason: Democrats are furious.
After the spy agency admitted it had tapped into the computers of Senate staffers investigating Bush-era interrogation practices, Sens. Mark Udall, D-Colo., and Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., called for Brennan’s resignation.
They won't be the last to do so.
Lawmakers' outrage stems from Brennan’s firm denial that the agency spied on those conducting oversight of CIA activities.
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” Brennan told the Council of Foreign Relations in March. “I mean, we wouldn’t do that. I mean, that’s just beyond the scope of reason.”
Now Brennan’s apology is doing little to appease leaders on both sides of the aisle.
“Brennan is either a liar or incompetent — or maybe both,” one senior Democratic Senate aide told the Washington Examiner. “No, I don’t think the White House can expect us to give him the benefit of the doubt here.”
The Obama administration benefited from the CIA actions being made public the same day that most in Washington were consumed by congressional failures to pass a bill to address the crisis on the U.S.-Mexico border.
But that’s likely just a short-term reprieve for team Obama.
Democrats have long had reservations about Brennan, citing his connections to the CIA’s use of enhanced interrogation techniques. Such concerns forced Brennan to withdraw his name from consideration for the top CIA post in 2008.
Liberals, in particular, have raised questions over how Brennan would be in the dark on agency efforts to monitor an investigation into practices he was so directly linked to.
The White House counters that Brennan led administration efforts to root out the tactics in question, proving where he stands on the issue.
Though most lawmakers have refrained from calling for Brennan’s ouster, they aren’t endorsing him, either. Most simply say they are waiting for more details before weighing in on his future.
The initial congressional reaction mirrors how lawmakers responded to the Veterans Affairs controversy. In the beginning, there was a slow drip of calls for former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki’s resignation — before such demands snowballed as more details about VA failures in medical care were revealed.
The White House is hoping the Brennan affair won't play out in the same way.
Brennan perhaps could benefit from the congressional summer recess, potentially giving the administration time to repair damaged relationships behind the scenes. And much of the media is focused on crises in Ukraine and Gaza and along the southwest border.
But prominent lawmakers, both Democratic and Republican, have shown little interest in downplaying the scandal.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., called Friday on Brennan to “explain to the American people whether he deliberately lied or he just didn't know what his agency was doing.”
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was even more forceful, saying that Brennan "directly lied to the American people."
A day earlier, Udall initiated the flurry of congressional indignation.
“I have no choice but to call for the resignation of CIA Director John Brennan,” he said.
However, Obama has proven loyal to members of his national security team in the face of mounting criticism.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, for example, kept his job after lawmakers accused him of lying to a congressional panel about the scope of National Security Agency surveillance techniques.
As Obama’s former counterterrorism adviser, Brennan has close ties to the president. He also was one of the central figures in the raid that killed al Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden.
But for some Democrats, the CIA spying revelations, coupled with distortions about the NSA programs, cement the idea that the intelligence community is simply ignoring oversight.
“There’s a clear narrative forming here,” said another Democratic Senate aide. “They seem to think they can do whatever they want. You better believe we’re going to raise hell over this.”
Still, others said the Senate Intelligence Committee is hardly a sympathetic victim.
“It’s about time the [committee] took seriously its job of ensuring that the CIA operates within the law,” said Faiza Patel, co-director of the Brennan Center for Justice's Liberty and National Security Program. “For too long, the committee’s leadership has accepted the intelligence community’s assurances without question."
This article was originally posted at 2:15 p.m. and has since been updated.