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Brennan Defends Drone, Intelligence Policies at CIA Confirmation Hearing

February 7, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
John Brennan, President Obama's nominee to head the CIA, faced tough questioning during his first confirmation hearing, defending his positions on intelligence policy and drone warfare. Congressional correspondent Kwame Holman recaps the hearing and explores why Brennan withdrew his nomination for the same post in 2008.
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JEFFREY BROWN: The man picked by President Obama to lead the Central Intelligence Agency was called today to defend his positions in the war on terror.

John Brennan’s Senate confirmation hearing revolved around several hotly debated policies.

NewsHour congressional correspondent Kwame Holman has our report.

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN, D-Calif.: It will stop again.

KWAME HOLMAN: Even before the hearing got truly under way, protesters from CODEPINK disrupted John Brennan’s opening statement, signaling that passions were running high on the targeted killing of terror suspects.

WOMAN: They won’t even tell Congress what countries we are killing children.

KWAME HOLMAN: The interruptions continued, and the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, ordered the room temporarily cleared.

DIANNE FEINSTEIN: We’re going to halt the hearing. I am going to ask that the room be cleared and that the CODEPINK associates not be permitted to come back in.

KWAME HOLMAN: Once the hearing resumed, Brennan defended U.S. actions in the war on terror, but he acknowledged the CIA is not immune from scrutiny.

JOHN BRENNAN, CIA Director Nominee: I have publicly acknowledged that our fight against al-Qaida and associated forces has sometimes involved the use of lethal force outside the hot battlefield of Afghanistan.

Accordingly, it is understandable that there is great interest in the legal basis, as well as the thresholds, criteria, processes, procedures, approvals and reviews of such actions. I have strongly promoted such public discussion with the Congress and with the American people, as I believe that our system of government and our commitment to transparency demand nothing less.

KWAME HOLMAN: Late Wednesday, Mr. Obama directed that members of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees be shown a classified memo on drone strikes abroad.

It lays out the legal rationale for targeting American terror suspects. Mr. Brennan helped manage the program. Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden had pressed for release of the memo. He went directly to the issue during his first pass at questioning Brennan.

SEN. RON WYDEN, D-Ore.: What should be done next to ensure that public conversation about drones, so that the American people are brought into debate and have a full understanding of what rules the government is going to observe when it conducts targeted killings?

JOHN BRENNAN: I think there is a misimpression on part of some American people who believe that we take strikes to punish terrorists for past transgressions. Nothing could be further from the truth. We only take such actions as a last resort to save lives when there is no other alternative to taking an action that’s going to mitigate that threat.

So we need to make sure that there’s an understanding. And the people that were standing up here today, I think they really have a misunderstanding of what we do as a government and the care that we take and the agony that we go through to make sure that we do not have any collateral injuries or deaths.

KWAME HOLMAN: Brennan is a 25-year veteran of the CIA, and now the president’s counterterror adviser. His name first surfaced as a candidate for director in 2008, but he withdrew amid questions about his past statements on enhanced interrogation, especially water-boarding.

Michigan Democrat Carl Levin took up that issue today.

SEN. CARL LEVIN, D-Mich.: My question is this. In your opinion, does water-boarding constitute torture?

JOHN BRENNAN: The attorney general has referred to water-boarding as torture. Many people have referred to it as torture.

And, as you well know and as we have had the discussion, Senator, the term torture has a lot of legal and political implications. It is something that should have been banned long ago. It never should have taken place, in my view. And, therefore, if I were to go to CIA, it would never in fact be brought back.

KWAME HOLMAN: But Republican Saxby Chambliss of Georgia wanted to know if Brennan stood by previous comments he had made asserting harsh interrogation methods produced results.

SEN. SAXBY CHAMBLISS, R-Ga.: In a Nov. 2007 interview, you said that info from the interrogation techniques — quote — “saved lives” — close quote. But you also say that CIA should be out of the detention business.

Your view seems to be that even if we could save American lives by detaining more terrorists using only traditional techniques, it would be better to kill them with a drone or let them go free, rather than detain them. Can you explain the logic in that argument?

JOHN BRENNAN: I respectfully disagree with, Senator. I never believe it’s better to kill a terrorist than to detain him. We want to detain as many terrorists as possible so we can elicit the intelligence from them in the appropriate manner so that we can disrupt follow-on terrorist attacks.

I clearly had the impression, as you said, when I was quoted in 2007 that there was valuable intelligence that came out from those interrogation sessions. That’s why I did say that they saved lives.

I must tell you, Senator, that reading this report from the committee raises serious questions about the information that I was given at the time and the impression I had at that time. Now I have to determine what — based on that information as well as what CIA says what the truth is. And at this point, Senator, I do not know what the truth is.

KWAME HOLMAN: North Carolina Republican Richard Burr zeroed in on CIA leaks, pressing Brennan for his position on publicly sharing covert operations.

SEN. RICHARD BURR, R-N.C.: Do you think that there is any situation where it’s legal to disclose to the media or the public these tales of covert action programs?

JOHN BRENNAN: I do not think it is ever appropriate to improperly disclose classified information to anybody who doesn’t have legitimate access to it and has the clearances for it.

RICHARD BURR: Could you provide to the committee any times that you were given the authority to release classified information?

JOHN BRENNAN: I have never provided classified information to reporters. I engage in discussions with reporters about classified issues that they might have had access to because of unfortunate leaks of classified information.

And I frequently work with reporters, if not editors of newspapers to keep out of the public domain some of this country’s most important secrets. And so I engage with them on those issues. But after working in the intelligence profession for 30 years and being at CIA for 25 years, I know the importance of keeping those secrets secret.

KWAME HOLMAN: There was no indication that the security of administration policies has hurt Brennan’s chances. He’s still expected to win confirmation by the Intelligence panel and the full Senate.

RAY SUAREZ: Online, find Margaret Warner’s blog post about the impact Brennan has had on the nation’s counterterrorism policy.