WASHINGTON — CIA Director-designate John Brennan strongly defended anti-terrorism attacks by unmanned drones Thursday under close questioning at a protest-disrupted confirmation hearing.
On a second topic, he said that after years of reading classified intelligence reports, he still does not know if 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 said.
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.
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“He was intimately involved in activities to kill innocent men women and children, mostly Americans,” Brennan said.
In a sign that the hearing had focused intense scrutiny on the drone program, committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said after the hearing that she and some other senators are considering writing legislation that would create a special court system to regulate drone strikes, similar to the one that signs off on government surveillance in espionage and terrorism cases.
During his testimony, Brennan declined to say if he believes waterboarding amounts to torture. But he said it is “something that is reprehensible and should never be done again.”
Brennan, 57, President Obama’s top anti-terrorism aide, won praise from several committee members as the day’s proceedings drew to a close, a clear indication that barring an unexpected development, his confirmation is on track. The panel will meet in closed session next week to permit discussion of classified material.
Earlier, Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, accused Brennan of having improperly disclosed information to television commentators about a foiled terrorist plot in Yemen to bomb a U.S.-bound airliner.
Brennan admitted he told the commentators the United States had “inside control” of the operation, but denied he had exposed the fact that a double agent for Western intelligence was inside the al-Qaida branch in Yemen. The FBI is investigating the source of that leak.
“It seems to me that the leak the Department of Justice is looking for is right here in front of us,” Risch said.
Brennan strenuously disagreed, saying he was a witness and not a target of the investigation.
In his opening statement, Brennan acknowledged “widespread debate” about the administration’s counterterrorism efforts.
But he said the United States remained “at war with al-Qaida and its associated forces,” which “still seek to carry out deadly strikes against our homeland and our citizens.”
Brennan said he had no second thoughts about having opposed a planned strike against Osama bin Laden in 1998, a few months before the bombings of two U.S. embassies. The plan was not “well-grounded,” he said, adding that other intelligence officials also recommended against proceeding. Brennan was at the CIA at the time.
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.
On the question of waterboarding, Brennan said that while serving as a deputy manager at the CIA 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.
The topic was very much 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.
Material from The New York Times is included in this report.