WASHINGTON — The confirmation hearing Thursday of presidential counterterrorism adviser John Brennan to be CIA director reopened debate on controversies that have dogged the country for more than a decade, including the Obama administration’s embrace of targeted killings and the George W. Bush administration’s approval of so-called enhanced interrogation methods for terrorism suspects.
Senate Intelligence Committee members complained that CIA directors for the past decade and in the Obama administration more recently had not fully cooperated with efforts by Congress to oversee the nation’s intelligence agencies.
The issues were a review of the some of the most controversial events of the last two presidential administrations, such as a still-classified CIA document that debunked reports that one of the 9/11 hijackers had met with an agent of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, and the Obama White House’s slowness to turn over documents in connection to the Benghazi consulate attack that killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans six months ago.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., captured the flavor of the questioning when she charged that in her 10 years on the committee, every CIA director since George Tenet, with the exception of Leon Panetta, the current defense secretary, had obfuscated, misled and lied to the committee. Tenet held the post from 1997 to 2004.
“With the exception of Mr. Panetta, I feel I’ve been jerked around by every CIA director,” she said.
Brennan, 57, repeatedly said he expected things would be different with him. “If I am confirmed, a trust deficit between the committee and the CIA would be wholly unacceptable to me,” he said.
Critics of President Barack Obama’s counterterrorism efforts were unconvinced.
“John Brennan’s refusal to unequivocally call waterboarding torture is Orwellian, and his hollow claim that drone strike policy complies with the law is wrong,” said Frank Jannuzi of Amnesty International, the human rights advocacy group. “If the last decade has taught us anything, it’s that unchecked presidential power, coupled with efforts to twist and reinterpret international law to justify virtually any actions on the part of the government, leads to human rights violations.”
Brennan, whom Obama nominated to replace retired Army Gen. David Petraeus, who admitted an extramarital affair, is expected to win confirmation. But his hearing came as the administration faces growing questions about the legality of its top-secret program of targeted killings of alleged terrorists, including Americans, and the number of civilians who have died in hundreds of missile strikes on Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia by the CIA’s drone aircraft.
Brennan, a former CIA station chief in Saudi Arabia, is a chief architect of the drone program, which the administration contends is constitutional. The administration was compelled on Wednesday to provide the committee with the classified Justice Department legal opinion on the program’s legality after the leak of a confidential white paper, which outlined its case that Obama was empowered to order the 2011 killing in Yemen of Anwar al Awlaki, an American who became a leader of al-Qaida’s branch in the Arabian Peninsula.
At least three other Americans, including Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, and an estimated 3,500 other people have been killed in drone attacks since 2003.
Brennan vigorously defended the program, saying that targets are selected through a rigorous review procedure based on accurate intelligence. Strikes, he said, are ordered only as “a last resort” after determining that targets are beyond capture. He insisted that the strikes are designed to prevent imminent terrorist attacks, not to avenge past operations.
“Any actions we take fully comport with our law,” he said, countering charges by some legal scholars and civil and human rights groups that the program is unconstitutional.
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Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the committee chairman, who for more than a year has called on the administration to make public more information on targeted killings, said the panel has “done significant oversight” that has verified the administration’s claims that annual civilian casualties have “typically been in the single digits.”
But she complained that the administration is still withholding eight legal opinions pertaining to the program, and said the administration had prevented the committee’s staff from reading the Justice Department opinion that had been given to the committee ahead of the hearing.
Asserting that he supports more transparency, Brennan said that he would advocate the release of those documents to the committee.
Feinstein was joined by other senators in questioning Brennan about the CIA’s use on al-Qaida detainees of waterboarding, sleep deprivation and other harsh interrogation practices that many experts consider torture and which were adopted after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. At the time, Brennan was a senior CIA executive.
Brennan reiterated that while he was aware of the program, he was not involved in it and wasn’t in a position to stop the practices. He said he had raised his “personal objections” in conversations with other top officials.
But Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the panel’s senior Republican, seemed to question Brennan’s assertion, saying that the committee has 50 emails concerning the program — and the information it produced — that Brennan had received. He added that none of Brennan’s former colleagues could recall his objecting to the program.
“I was copied on thousands upon thousands … of email distributions,” Brennan said.
He declined several times to describe waterboarding as torture, but he agreed that it is “reprehensible and something that should not be done.” Obama banned the procedure and other harsh interrogation techniques after he took office in 2009.
“There can never be that kind of situation again, where … we have to tell you what’s going wrong in your agency,” said Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va. The program was “executed by personnel without relevant experience, managed incompetently by senior officials who did not pay attention to crucial details, and corrupted by personal and pecuniary conflicts of interest,” he said.
“It was sold to policymakers and lawyers of the White House, the Department of Justice and Congress, with grossly inflated claims of professionalism and effectiveness, so-called lives saved,” Rockefeller said.