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Senators challenged John Brennan, President Barack Obama’s nominee to lead the CIA, about leaks of classified information to journalists, harsh interrogation methods and the legality of targeted drone strikes against U.S. citizens linked to al-Qaeda.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the Senate Intelligence committee reviewing Brennan’s nomination, raised the possibility of creating a special court to vet lethal drone strikes, while Senator Ron Wyden questioned the basis of “the president’s authority to kill Americans.”
Brennan’s confirmation hearing before the panel yesterday brought fresh scrutiny of the drone program, which has been pursued by the White House with limited oversight by Congress or the judiciary. Senators from both parties prodded Brennan, now the White House counterterrorism adviser, to explain why the administration has been slow to share the legal basis for such strikes, particularly those targeting U.S. citizens.
“The president has insisted that any actions we take will be legally grounded,” said Brennan, 57, an architect of the drone policy. He said the White House has an “approval process before any action is contemplated, including those actions that might involve the use of lethal force.”
If confirmed as Central Intelligence Agency director, Brennan said he would ensure “that any actions we take fully comport with our law” and at the same time ensure “that we do everything possible before we need to resort to lethal force.”
In his opening remarks, he said that “we remain at war with al-Qaeda and its associated forces which, despite the substantial progress we have made against them, still seek to carry out deadly strikes against our homeland and our citizens and against our friends and allies.”
The committee will meet again Feb. 12 to continue the confirmation hearing in a classified setting. Yesterday’s three- and-a-half hour session was interrupted several times at the outset by protesters shouting objections to the targeted assassination program as well as to the CIA’s past use of harsh interrogation methods. Feinstein, a California Democrat, said yesterday she aimed to schedule a vote for Feb. 14.
Brennan, a 25-year veteran of the CIA, spoke briefly about cyber attacks being “one of the most insidious, one of the most consequential” threats to U.S. national security. The hearing also focused on other issues, particularly policies on interrogating terror suspects, including the efficacy of so- called enhanced interrogation techniques.
In December, the committee approved a 6,000-page report on the CIA’s detention and interrogation policies following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Brennan said it contradicts some of what he had been told earlier about the value of information obtained using harsh interrogation methods.
He called “reprehensible” the now-prohibited technique of waterboarding, or simulated drowning, during interrogation, and said he has “serious questions” about its effectiveness. Brennan said a review of the interrogation program would be his “highest priority” if confirmed.
Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the senior Republican on the committee, pressed Brennan about leaks to the media of classified information, including about a foiled bomb plot tied to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Republicans have complained that some of these leaks, which took place during the presidential election campaign, were intended to burnish Obama’s image. They included articles saying that Obama personally approved drone targets and about the “Stuxnet” cyber attack on Iran’s nuclear program.
“I would never provide classified information to reporters,” Brennan said. “After working in the intelligence profession for 30 years and being at the CIA for 25 years, I know the importance of keeping secrets secret.”
U.S. presidents, though, have unlimited authority to declassify information, freeing selected members of their administrations to discuss it with reporters without violating the law. Brennan acknowledged that he has discussed classified information with reporters and editors, in part to keep such information out of the public domain.
At one point, Senator James Risch, an Idaho Republican, accused Brennan of being the source of a leak.
“It seems to me,” Risch said, that the source of the leak “is right here in front of us.”
Brennan bristled, saying, “I disagree with you vehemently, Senator.”
Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, focused on the administration’s failure to release to the committee the classified legal opinions underpinning the president’s authority to conduct strikes, particularly against U.S. citizens.
Earlier this week, Obama ordered the Justice Department to provide members of the House and Senate intelligence panels with one such document, a classified justification for drone strikes against U.S. citizens abroad who are found to be terrorists.
Wyden told Brennan yesterday that “giving any president unfettered power to kill an American without checks and balances” is troubling.
The radical cleric and U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki was killed in a 2011 drone strike in Yemen along with an alleged al- Qaeda propagandist Samir Khan, 25, a Saudi-born American of Pakistani heritage. Two weeks later, al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old, Denver-born son, Abdulrahman, was killed in a suspected drone strike in Yemen.
Brennan said al-Awlaki was involved in numerous plots to kill Americans, including a 2010 attempt to blow up two U.S.- bound cargo planes with bombs hidden inside laser-printer cartridges.
After Wyden asked if drone targets were given a chance to surrender, Brennan said that any American who joins al-Qaeda “should know well that they, in fact, are part of an enemy against us and that the United States will do everything possible to destroy that enemy to save American lives.”
Brennan said the pilotless planes are used only as a “last resort.”
Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, said that the Obama administration has conducted four times as many drone strikes as the administration of President George W. Bush had. She asked whether there was a connection to the termination of the CIA’s detention program.
“There’s never been an occasion that I’m aware of where we had the opportunity to capture a terrorist and we didn’t and we decided to take a lethal strike,” Brennan said. He added there was no correlation between the termination of CIA detention program and the increase in strikes.
Feinstein said she would review proposals to create a court similar to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court “to ensure that drone strikes are carried out in a manner consistent with our values” and “to review the conduct of such strikes.”
“This has gone about as far as it can go as a covert activity,” she said of the drone program. “There’s an absence of knowing exactly who is responsible for what decision. I think we need to look at this whole process and figure a way to make it transparent and identifiable.”
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