John Brennan, the White House nominee to head the Central Intelligence Agency, faced a series of questions during his Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Thursday regarding how he would lead the organization, with an emphasis on national security information leaks under President Barack Obama and Brennan's views on interrogation techniques like waterboarding.
Brennan, a gruff 25-year CIA veteran and the White House's counterterrorism adviser, also spent much of the hearing fielding questions about the president's use of drone strikes, a controversial program of targeted killing abroad. Brennan defended the use of drone strikes against terrorists but said he preferred catching them alive.
“I never believe it’s better to kill a terrorist than to detain him," he said, and added there was value in interrogating suspects.
The issue had attracted fresh scrutiny this week when NBC News obtained and published a 16-page white paper that gives the green light for targeting individual Americans anywhere outside the U.S. for assassination—without oversight from Congress or the courts, and even if the U.S. citizen in question is not actively plotting a specific terrorist attack.
The White House on Tuesday defended targeted assassinations as “necessary,” “ethical” and “wise.” Human rights and civil liberties groups have condemned those strikes partly because they are carried out without such congressional oversight. Other critics have warned that civilian deaths in drone strikes inflame anti-U.S. sentiment and help Islamist extremist groups recruit new members.
Brennan got a bit of help late on Wednesday on the issue of drone strikes from Obama, who directed the Justice Department to share with the Senate and House Intelligence Committees several classified memos laying out the legal rationale for the strikes, notably those that target Americans. Some of the Senate committee’s eight Democrats and seven Republicans had suggested they might block Brennan's nomination until the administration made those documents available.
Brennan also faced questions about how he opposed Bush administration “enhanced interrogation techniques"—practices like waterboarding, which the United States used to label torture. He has said in the past that, while at the CIA, he objected to that program. He told the committee that he believes waterboarding "should not be done" and that it "never will be" used under his direction.
In a prehearing submission to the committee, Brennan said he “did not play a role in its creation, execution or oversight” and “had significant concerns and personal objections” that he expressed privately to colleagues at the agency. Four years ago, Brennan withdrew his name from consideration to head the CIA in the face of opposition from liberal groups who charged that he had not done enough to oppose such interrogations. And Republican Sen. John McCain, who survived torture as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, released a letter late Wednesday openly doubting that Brennan put up much of a fight.
Regarding information leaks, Republicans have charged that the Obama administration has disclosed sensitive information for political gain. When pressed by North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr about the information he makes public, Brennan denied revealing classified information from covert operations.
"I know the importance of keeping those secrets secret," he said.
At the beginning of the hearing, protestors from the anti-war group Code Pink interrupted the proceedings and were immediately escorted out of the committee room. "We're making more enemies," one demonstrator shouted, referring to the United States' ongoing military campaigns abroad. Other protesters continued to interrupt the hearing before committee Chairman Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., ordered the room cleared.
Brennan will undergo a confidential hearing before the committee votes on his confirmation.