John Brennan, the nominee for CIA Director, vehemently defended the Obama administration’s drone strike program and condemned the use of torture during his first confirmation hearing before the Senate Select Intelligence Committee on Thursday.
Drones were a dominant topic of the hearing, which took place just three days after NBC News published a Justice Department memo laying out the legal justification for the administration’s targeted killings. As Deputy National Security Advisor for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, Brennan has overseen the controversial program.
Shortly after Brennan began his opening statement, protesters from the anti-war group Code Pink began interrupting the nominee. After the fifth protester was removed by security, committee chairman Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) chose to clear the chamber and remove all Code Pink members. “This witness is entitled to be heard, ladies and gentlemen, so give him that opportunity,” Feinstein said.
Once Brennan did get the opportunity to speak, he strongly defended the drone strikes at the center of the controversy. “Any actions we take fully comport with our law,” Brennan declared.
Beating back accusations that the Obama administration uses the drones for punitive attacks, Brennan said such actions are used “as a last resort to save lives, when there’s no other alternative.” He also spoke of “the agony that we go through to make sure that we do not have any collateral injuries or deaths.”
Backing up his point, Senator Feinstein noted in her opening statement that the yearly number of civilians killed in drone strikes was “in the single digits.” That assertion is highly debatable — according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, drone strikes have killed between 473 to 893 civilians in Pakistan alone since 2004 — but neither Brennan nor any senators disputed it.
Brennan also faced several questions about his position on the so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” that were prevalent while he worked at the CIA under the George W. Bush administration. While Brennnan said “I have a personal opinion that waterboarding is reprehensible and it’s something that should not be done,” and promised that it “never will be if I have anything to do with it,” he declined to label it as torture.
“I am not a lawyer, senator, and I cannot address that question,” Brennan dissembled. Similarly, when Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) and Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) pressed Brennan on whether torture helped lead U.S. intelligence forces to Osama bin Laden, Brennan said he was unsure.
Despite the delicate subject matter, Brennan showed no outward signs of unease throughout his testimony. The one exception was when Senator Jim Risch (R-ID) directly accused Brennan of leaking national security secrets to the press.
“It seems to me the leak the Justice Department is looking for is right here in front of us,” Risch said.
“I disagree vehemently,” Brennan fired back.
Brennan is widely expected to win confirmation as CIA Director. On Tuesday, he will face a second, closed hearing, before the committee decides whether to send his nomination to the full Senate for a vote.
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