John O. Brennan, President Obama’s pick to lead the CIA, defended the administration’s drone execution program before Congress on Thursday, saying that in war the commander in chief has the right to order a targeted killing — but agreeing that Congress should be more involved in knowing what is happening.
Mr. Brennan, who is Mr. Obama’s homeland security adviser and is considered one of the key architects of the war on terrorism in recent years, also said he is not sure whether interrogation techniques such as waterboarding produced any valuable information from suspected terrorist detainees.
In a hearing interrupted repeatedly by anti-war protesters, Mr. Brennan denied he had leaked classified information to reporters and told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that he will try to work with Capitol Hill so that lawmakers are aware of the administration’s operations in the war on terrorism.
Senators homed in on targeted killings by armed unmanned aerial vehicles, begun under President George W. Bush and dramatically expanded by Mr. Obama. The drone program has come under scrutiny after the Obama administration used it to kill an American citizen living in Yemen.
“I understand you can’t have co-commanders in chief, but having the executive being the prosecutor, the judge, the jury and the executioner all in one is very contrary to the traditions and the laws of this country,” said Sen. Angus S. King Jr., Maine independent.
Mr. Brennan replied that this was not a judicial proceeding.
“The actions that we take on the counterterrorism front, again, are to take actions against individuals where we believe that the intelligence base is so strong and the nature of the threat is so grave and serious, as well as imminent, that we have no recourse except to take this action that may involve a lethal strike,” he said.
With some senators threatening to delay Mr. Brennan’s nomination to be CIA director until more information is disclosed, the White House late Wednesday said it would provide to the committee legal memos detailing advice about the drone program.
NBC News this week obtained and released a 16-page Justice Department memo laying out the legal justification for the program.
Three Americans are known to have been killed by the program — all of them in Yemen and all by missile strikes from drones.
The three are radical Islamic preacher Anwar al-Awlaki, a senior leader in al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP); his 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki; and AQAP propagandist Samir Khan.
U.S. officials have said that al-Awlaki was targeted directly only because he had an “operational role” in recruiting and training suicide terrorists including the Nigerian would-be “underwear bomber” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. The other two were killed in strikes targeting other AQAP leaders.
“I never provided classified information to reporters,” Mr. Brennan said. He added that his contacts with the news media were arranged by the White House press office and aimed at explaining administration policy.
Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat, told the hearing that Congress, and eventually the American public, needed to see the documents outlining the legal basis for the targeted-killing program.