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Brennan Pressed On Drone Program At Senate Hearing

John Brennan testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee in Washington on February 7.
John Brennan testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee in Washington on February 7.
By RFE/RL
John Brennan, U.S. President Barack Obama's nominee to be the next director of the CIA, defended controversial U.S. counterterrorism policies at a Senate confirmation hearing that was interrupted several times by protesters.

Committee chairwoman Diane Feinstein (D-California) was forced to temporarily halt the hearing and clear the room.

Brennan is considered the key architect of the U.S. drone program, which is used in Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere to track and kill terrorists. The program has been heavily criticized for causing civilian deaths.

Senators grilled Brennan on the secrecy surrounding the program and demanded to know how the White House decides whom to target and when to take action.

Brennan said President Barack Obama requires that any counterterrorism actions “be legally grounded and thoroughly anchored in intelligence.”

“We only take such actions as a last resort to save lives when there’s no other alternative to taking an action that’s going to mitigate that threat," Brennan said. "We need to make sure that there’s an understanding and the [protesters] who were standing up here today, I think they really have a misunderstanding of what we do as a government and the care that we take and the agony that we go through to make sure that we do not have any collateral injuries or deaths.”

Lawmakers also asked Brennan about an until-now secret White House legal rationale for killing Americans abroad who are suspected of being leaders of Al-Qaeda and who pose a threat to the United States. The existence of the program was leaked to the media earlier this week.

Lack Of Transparency

Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) asked Brennan what the public deserved to know about “the president’s ability to kill Americans.”

Brennan didn’t answer directly, saying only that the government must “optimize transparency [and] at the same time optimize secrecy and the protection of our national security.”

He said there is a need to “explain to the American people what are the thresholds for actions, what are the procedures, the practices, the processes, the approvals, the reviews.” 

Lawmakers’ frustration over the lack of transparency came out in their questions, which were sharp at times. Brennan gave only general assurances that he would seek to improve information sharing if confirmed to lead the spy agency.

'I Expressed My Objections'

Brennan spent a quarter of a century as a CIA analyst before becoming head of its counterterrorism center under President George W. Bush. Obama’s rumored interest in him back in 2008 to be CIA head was torpedoed by controversy surrounding his past support for so-called enhanced interrogation techniques.

This time, Brennan looks likely to be confirmed, but the presence of protesters at the hearing made it clear the controversy hasn’t gone away.

Brennan was asked point-blank if he tried to stop enhanced interrogation while he was at the CIA in the mid-2000s.

“I had expressed my personal objections and views to some agency colleagues about certain of those EITs (enhanced interrogation techniques), such as waterboarding, nudity, and others, where I professed my personal objections to it," he said. "But I did not try to stop it because it was something that was being done and in a different part of the agency under the authority of others, and it was something that was directed by the administration at the time.”

He declined to use the word “torture” to describe waterboarding but said if he were leading the CIA, “it would never be brought back.”

With reporting by AP

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