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.
Several Republicans closely questioned Mr. Brennan about leaks to the news media regarding Obama administration national security successes. Mr. Brennan denied that he was the source of any of them.
“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.
“We’ve got to see any and all opinions before the vote” on the nomination, Mr. Wyden said.
He also called for the legal opinions to be made public so that Americans could judge for themselves the exact extent of the authority President Obama asserts to kill U.S. citizens without charge or trial if they are senior al Qaeda leaders who cannot be captured.
“What it really goes to is the issue of checks and balances,” he said.
Mr. King asked Mr. Brennan to allow the judicial branch to oversee targeted killings of U.S. citizens, as it authorized intelligence surveillance against Americans, through the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court — a secret tribunal that grants warrants for the electronic and physical surveillance of Americans suspected of espionage or terrorism.
“I would like to suggest to you that you consider a FISA court-type process, where an American citizen is going to be targeted for a lethal strike,” Mr. King told Mr. Brennan.
“At least that would be some check,” Mr. King said. “I have great confidence in you. I have great confidence in President Obama. But all the lessons of history are, it shouldn’t matter who’s in charge, because we should have procedures and processes in place that will protect us.”
Some Republicans asked Mr. Brennan whether the administration’s expanded use of the lethal strikes by remotely piloted drone aircraft grew from its decision to abjure the capture, detention and harsh interrogation techniques employed by the Bush administration.
“Is your testimony today that the huge increase in the number of lethal strikes has no connection to the change in the Obama administration’s detention policy?” said Sen. Susan M. Collins, Maine Republican. “Because obviously, if we’re capturing a terrorist, we have the opportunity to interrogate that individual and perhaps learn of ongoing plots. But if the strike is done, that opportunity is lost.”
“There’s never been occasion that I’m aware of where we had the opportunity to capture a terrorist and we didn’t and we decided to take a lethal strike,” replied Mr. Brennan. “So certainly there is no correlation there.”
He added that the expanding use of drones was in part a result of “the maturation of capabilities and insights into [al Qaeda] plots as a result of the investment that was made in the previous administration.”
Other Republicans focused on questioning Mr. Brennan about administration leaks to the media.
“I engaged 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,” Mr. Brennan said.
“Whenever I deal with reporters, I do so at the request of the White House press office and they set the ground rules,” he said.
He said that he voluntary cooperated with the Department of Justice investigation into the leak of information about a double agent inside al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) who helped U.S. and allied agencies foil an underwear bomb plot.
Mr. Brennan said he had “been interviewed on it” and his office turned over “all relevant materials,” including any notes of the conference call.
He denied that a statement he made in a conference call with former officials last year about the plot had compromised intelligence sources and methods.
The call had been arranged because the former officials were all going on news programs to discuss the foiling of the plot, which targeted U.S. aviation.
Mr. Brennan said, in a statement later repeated publicly by several of the former officials, that the United States had “inside control” of the plot and that the underwear bomb was never a threat to American aviation.
Later that day, news agencies broke the story that an a U.S. allied agency had an agent inside the AQAP cell planning the bombing.
Mr. Brennan said he needed to explain that the U.S. had “inside control,” because during the time of the plot — around the first anniversary of the Navy SEAL raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan — he and other officials had reassured that there was no specific actionable intelligence about threats or plots.
“We had said publicly that there was no active plot at the time of the bin Laden anniversary,” he said.
Mr. Brennan is a 25-year career intelligence officer who served in the Bush administration as the first head of the National Counterterrorism Center. In 2008, he was a close adviser to Mr. Obama in the Senate.