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Brennan Strongly Defends Administration Policy on Drone Strikes

At a spirited confirmation hearing Thursday, CIA director nominee John O. Brennan staunchly defended the Obama administration’s drone strike policy, as well as his own record on the subjects of harsh interrogation methods and leaks.

Brennan, who touted his own “direct manner,” “candor” and “bluntness” that stem from his “New Jersey roots,” endured sharp questioning from Senate Intelligence Committee members on both sides of the aisle about contentious topics, but he parried a number of the attacks with well-prepared and at times sharp-elbowed answers. His performance stood in contrast to the rockier outing last week by another high-profile Obama administration national security nominee, Chuck Hagel for secretary of Defense.

The hearing did get off to a raucous start, as Brennan’s opening statement was interrupted so repeatedly by protesters angry about U.S. drone strikes that Senate Intelligence Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., halted the hearing and ordered the room cleared briefly.

The Obama administration had hoped to clear some potential obstacles to Brennan’s confirmation in advance by turning over Office of Legal Counsel memos to the panel on the targeted drone killing of U.S. citizens suspected of terrorism. Brennan, as the top White House counterterrorism and homeland security adviser, has guided the administration’s drone strike program.

So far, there is little evidence that Brennan won’t be confirmed.

But members complained that they needed to see yet more documents and that staff members shouldn’t have been forbidden from seeing them.

And Feinstein said Thursday at the hearing that she would look at new legislative proposals to govern overseas drone strikes, including the possibility of creating a new court to review them.

She said there were eight more legal memos the committee was seeking, while Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said the documents provided did not live up to President Barack Obama’s commitment to him to turn over “any and all” related opinions. Feinstein said she was comfortable with the processes for the drone program, but that it was vague who was responsible for making which decisions.

Brennan committed, conditionally, to assisting the committee in its quest for information.

“I would certainly be an advocate of making sure that this committee has the documentation it needs in order to perform its oversight functions,” Brennan said. “I have been an advocate of that position. I will continue to be.”

That said, Brennan noted that “the reason for providing information just to committee members at times is to ensure that it is kept on a limited basis. It is rather exceptional, as I think you know, that the Office of Legal Counsel opinion — or advice — would be shared directly with you.”

As one of the officials involved in the drone strike program, Brennan said he has helped ensure “that any actions we take fully comport with our law and meet the standards that I think this committee and the American people expect of us as far as taking actions we need to protect the American people, but at the same time ensuring that we do everything possible before we need to resort to lethal force.”

He rejected an assertion from the panel’s vice chairman, Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., that the administration would rather kill a terrorist than detain one. Feinstein said that based on claims from the administration that the committee has done its best to independently verify, the number of civilians killed annually by the program numbers in the “single digits,” but that the exact number is classified. Brennan said that when there are civilian casualties, he would favor disclosing any mistakes publicly and to the countries where they occur.

In answering questions from Chambliss about whether he had any role in the creation or implementation of the George W. Bush administration’s harsh interrogation program, Brennan was categorical that he did not, despite the claims of a former supervisor and his name appearing approximately 50 times in e-mail traffic included in a 6,000 page committee report on the program.

He would not provide his personal opinion when asked by Carl Levin, D-Mich., about whether waterboarding constitutes torture. The term, he said, “has a lot of legal and political implications.” He said only that his view was that some of the techniques, including waterboarding and nudity, should have been banned.

“I have a personal opinion that waterboarding is reprehensible and something that should not be done,” Brennan said. “I’m not a lawyer.”

He would not answer Feinstein or Levin’s questions about whether the techniques helped track down al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, as some past CIA officials have asserted and as the committee’s report concluded was false. Brennan said he would need to get the agency’s reaction to the report before answering.

The most tense exchanges came when Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, implied that Brennan might have improperly disclosed information last year about an operative who helped derail a Yemeni “underwear bomber.”

“Absolutely not, senator,” Brennan spat back. “I don’t agree with you whatsoever.”

Brennan will return on Feb. 12 for a classified session with the Intelligence panel. Tentatively, a committee vote could follow Feb. 14. One potential hurdle was the suggestion from Sen. Richard M. Burr, R-N.C., that he would hold up Brennan’s nomination if the administration didn’t turn over documents related to the attack last year on a U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Feinstein said she was confident that it was being worked out, however.

The questioning of Brennan did reveal new congressional energy when it comes to oversight of the controversial drone strikes, starting with Feinstein’s remarks about exploring new legislation.

“I intend to review proposals for legislation to ensure that drone strikes are carried out in a manner consistent with our values,” including to “create an analog to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to review” drone strikes, Feinstein said.

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court issues warrants for wiretaps used to collect foreign intelligence. A Department of Justice white paper that was disclosed this week on drone strikes said that “there exists no appropriate judicial forum to evaluate these constitutional considerations.”

Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, asked Brennan whether he would support such a court.

Brennan answered that he thought it was “certainly worthy of discussion,” and that the administration had wrestled with just such a proposal. But he said courts are not best suited for those decisions.

“Our judicial tradition is that a court of law is used to determine one’s guilt or innocence for past actions, which is very different from the decisions that are made on the battlefield, as well as actions that are taken against terrorists,” Brennan said. “The decisions that are made are to take action so that we prevent a future action, so we protect American lives. That is an inherently executive branch function to determine.”

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