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.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., carries a musket on stage as he speaks during the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Md., on Thursday March 6, 2014.