WASHINGTON – CIA Director-designate John Brennan strongly defended anti-terror attacks by unmanned drones Thursday under close questioning at a protest-disrupted confirmation hearing. On a second controversial topic, he said that after years of reading classified intelligence reports he still does not know whether waterboarding has yielded useful information.
Despite what he called a public misimpression, Brennan told the Senate Intelligence Committee that drone strikes are used only against targets planning to carry out attacks against the United States, never as retribution for an earlier one.
Nothing could be further from the truth, he declared.
Referring to one American citizen killed by a drone in Yemen in 2011, he said the man, Anwar al-Alawki, had ties to at least three attacks planned or carried out on U.S. soil. They included the Fort Hood, Texas, shooting that claimed 13 lives in 2009, a failed attempt to down a Detroit-bound airliner the same year and a thwarted plot to bomb cargo planes in 2010.
He was intimately involved in activities to kill innocent men women and children, mostly Americans, Brennan said.
In a long afternoon in the witness chair, Brennan declined to say whether he believes waterboarding amounts to torture, but he said firmly it is something that is reprehensible and should never be done again.
Praised at the end
Brennan, 57, President Obama’s top anti-terrorism aide, won praise from several members of the committee as the day’s proceedings drew to a close, a clear indication that barring an unexpected development, his confirmation as the nation’s next head of the CIA is on track. The panel will meet in closed session next week to permit discussion of classified material.
Angrily denies leak
Brennan bristled once during the day, when Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho, accused him of having leaked classified information in a telephone call with former government officials who were preparing to make television appearances.
I disagree with that vehemently, the nominee shot back.
On May 7 of last year, The Associated Press reported that the CIA thwarted an ambitious plot by al-Qaida’s affiliate in Yemen to destroy a U.S.-bound airliner, using a bomb with a sophisticated new design around the one-year anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden. The next day, the Los Angeles Times reported that the would-be bomber was cooperating with U.S. authorities.
During Thursday’s hearing, Risch and Sen. Dan Coats of Indiana were among those who contended Brennan had inadvertently revealed that the U.S. had a spy inside Yemen’s al-Qaida branch when, hours after the first AP report appeared, he told a group of media consultants that there was no active threat during the bin Laden anniversary because we had inside control of the plot.
The hearing was interrupted repeatedly at its outset, including once before it had begun. Eventually, Feinstein briefly ordered the proceedings halted and the room cleared so those re-entering could be screened to block obvious protesters.
Unsure of torture
Brennan is a veteran of more than three decades in intelligence work and is currently serving as Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser in the White House. Any thought he had of becoming CIA director four years ago vanished amid questions about the role he played at the CIA when the Bush administration approved waterboarding and other forms of enhanced interrogation of suspected terrorists.
On the question of waterboarding, Brennan said that during the Bush administration, he was told such interrogation methods produced valuable information. Now, after reading a 300-page summary of a 6,000-page report on CIA interrogation and detention policies, he said he does not know what the truth is.
The shouted protests centered on CIA drone strikes that have killed three American citizens and an unknown number of foreigners overseas.
It was a topic on the mind of the committee members who eventually will vote on Brennan’s confirmation.
In the hours before the hearing began, Obama ordered that a classified paper outlining the legal rationale for striking at U.S. citizens abroad be made available for members of the House and Senate intelligence panels to read.
It was an attempt to clear the way for Brennan’s approval, given hints from some lawmakers that they might hold up confirmation unless they had access to the material.