Conflict & Justice

John Brennan CIA confirmation hearing to highlight drone strikes, torture, targeted killings (LIVE BLOG)



Demonstrators disrupt the confirmation hearing of John Brennan, US President Barack Obama's nominee to be director of the Central Intelligence Agency, before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on February 7, 2013. The hard-nosed architect of the US drone war against Al Qaeda, Brennan faces difficult questions about secret assassinations from senators weighing his nomination to lead the CIA. Committee chair Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-CA, cleared the room after several outbursts by protesters.


Saul Loeb


UPDATE: 2/7/13 6:00 PM ET

Brennan's opening statement

This live blog is now closed. Check here for further developments.

In response to the question "Which John Brennan are they going to get?" from Sen. Collins, Brennan responded:

The CIA would get a John Brennan who is neither a Democrat or a Republican, nor has ever been.... one who has been fortunate to have lived [the intelligence profession] for 40 years. ...The CIA would get a John Brennan who has been working national intelligence issues for my life.

In case you missed it, here is Brennan's opening statement, repeatedly interrupted by Code Pink protesters, via Politico.

UPDATE: 2/7/13 5:40 PM ET

Support and awkward jokes

Sen. Rockefeller seemed to throw his full weight behind Brennan in the second round of questioning, saying he was a "terrific leader."

"I think you're the guy for the job, and the only guy for the job," he said to Brennan.

"I've noticed you're on your fourth glass of water and I don't want to be accused of waterboarding you," joked Sen. Burr, to nervous laughter.

UPDATE: 2/7/13 5:30 PM ET

Who is Mr. Awlaki?

Committee chairman Sen. Dianne Feinstein asked about Anwar al-Awlaki, saying that perhaps the American public would better understand the killing of an American citizen if they understood his actions and motivations.

"Before he died he was intimately involved in activities that were designed to kill innocent men, women and children," said Brennan, mentioning Awlaki's connection to an Al Qaeda affiliate.

Feinstein asked detailed questions about Awlaki's role in various plots, and Brennan said, "Mr. Awlaki was involved in a number of these activities."

"Mr. Awlaki was part of Al Qaeda, and we are at war with Al Qaeda," Brennan said.

UPDATE: 2/7/13 5:25 PM ET

"There's no one else watching the CIA but us" 

"It's incredibly important for the CIA to be totally open with this committee because there's no one else watching," said Sen. Angus King, noting that Secretary Panetta was very complimentary of Brennan.

"Typically, the public is involved, the press is involved. This is a unique situation where this committee and our House committee. It's not just nice, its critically important to have this oversight," he added. 

Sen. King also argued for a serious discussion over "where the Dept. of Defense ends and CIA starts in terms of counterterrorism operations."

Brennan agreed that there should not be "redundant, wasted resources" between the two.

There was also a discussion of FISA-like courts for drone strikes to kill American citizens.  

UPDATE: 2/7/13 5:15 PM ET

Conflicting demands from Democrats and Republicans

Sen. Martin Heinrich asked, "Will you be as public in condemning the program," about the enhanced interrogation program.

Heinrich also asked if Brennan would oppose declassifying the Intelligence Committee's report on the CIA's program. Brennan once again urged caution in declassifying the report, citing the sensitivity of the information.

Republican lawmakers have grilled Brennan on allegedly leaking information, while Democrats have urged him to declassify information.

"I would need to make sure I can say it straight, give it straight," Brennan said, talking about giving information to policymakers.

Brennan criticized the CIA for being insular, saying it had not inter-operated with other intelligence agencies and branches of government. Brennan said the CIA would need to work with the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies more closely.

UPDATE: 2/7/13 5:05 PM ET

Capturing a terrorist vs. targeted killing of a terrorist

"You've said that your unqualified preference is to undertake lethal force when capture is not feasible," Sen. Collins opened with, citing a New America Foundation study which found that in the first two years of Obama's administration, there were four times the number of targeted killings than in eight years in Bush's administration.

"Does the increase lethal killings have no connection to Obama's detention policy?" asked Sen. Collins. "If we're capturing a terrorist, we have the opportunity to interrogate."

"There has never been an occasion that we had an opportunity to capture a terrorist that we chose a targeted killing," Brennan replied.

Sen. Collins also discussed the growing global perception of American arrogance that stems from an attitude of "we fly where we want, and shoot where we want, because we can?"

"I would not agree with some of the statements," said Brennan. "What we in fact have found is that people are being held hostage to Al Qaeda and have welcomed the US government's work to rid them of the Al Qaeda cancer."  

UPDATE: 2/7/13 4:55 PM ET

Intelligence collection on social media

Sen. Mark Warner asked how Brennan would acquire objective information on the effectiveness of programs. Brennan said it was something he would work on if confirmed. "Having been an analyst and an intelligence officer for many years, I need to see the data."

"If sequestration takes place, I would not take a salami slice approach, taking 5 percent off the top of every program," Brennan said, when Warner asked about dealing with national security in a cash-strapped environment.

"We have to make sure we're not being taken by surprise," Brennan said, emphasizing new methods of intelligence collection, including social media, which he said played an instrumental part during the Arab Spring.

UPDATE: 2/7/13 4:50 PM ET

Who should be allowed to interrogate?

Military, FBI, and our international partners, Brennan answered, in response to Sen. Marco Rubio's questioning about Ali Harzi, a suspect in the Benghazi attack, who was released by Tunisian authorities without alerting the FBI. 

"The information we get directly is better than what we get international partners, is it not?" asked Rubio, to which Brennan replied by stressing "tailored responses" to interrogation.

"Are you fully comfortable with losing the opportunity to interrogate Harzi?" Rubio asked.

"We need to set a standard and an example to the world," Brennan said. "We want to make sure we interrogate with our international partners, and be able to face people about how we obtained information and detentions."

CIA doesn't have detention authority, added Brennan.  

UPDATE: 2/7/13 4:40 PM ET

Restoring the CIA's reputation

Sen. Mark Udall went back to the rendition and enhanced interrogation topic, asking if Brennan would work with the committee to correct the public record on the detention program.

The Guardian noted that earlier this week, Udall released a statement saying he was "deeply disappointed" that Brennan was unprepared to discuss the Intelligence Committee's report on the CIA's program.

Udall called on Brennan to "restore the CIA's reputation for integrity and analytical rigor."

UPDATE: 2/7/13 4:30 PM ET

"The New Jersey Way" 

Senator Dan Coats of Indiana said that the "blunt, straightforward working relationship" personified by New Jersey politicians like Governor Chris Christie would benefit the dealings between the committee and the CIA with Brennan at its head.

He also questioned Brennan on the intercepted IED reported by Reuters and others that many think Brennan disclosed covert information on. Brennan maintained that "there was no threat" and that they had control over the situation. 

"I engaged to mitigate damage from that leak," Brennan said again, ending with another crack at Gov. Christie. 

UPDATE: 2/7/13 4:20 PM ET

Does waterboarding constitute torture?

Asked by Sen. Carl Levin whether waterboarding constituted torture, Brennan responded, "I have a personal opinion that waterboarding is reprehensible and should not be done."

Brennan once again walked back his comments in the past about whether worthwhile information had been obtained by using harsh interrogation methods.

UPDATE: 2/7/13 4:15 PM ET

The militarization of the CIA; Response to cyberthreats 

Sen. Barabara Mikulski began her questioning by thanking Brennan's family for their service, and largely soft-balled the incoming CIA director, reiterating how much she was "looking forward to working with him." 

She then interrogated Brennan on his stance on the increasing militarization of the CIA. 

"At times the President directs the CIA to take action, including paramilitary actions," Brennan responded. "There have been things since 9/11 that have been an aberration from our mission...The CIA should not be performing military operations." 

Sen. Mikulski also tackled the growing issue of cyberthreats to America, which Brennan called "insidious" and "the biggest threat to national security today." 

"We need to everything to prevent an attack due to vulnerabilities on the cyberfront," he said, adding that the CIA is best positioned to determine the plans of foreign governments, groups, and terrorist and criminal cyber-organizations. 

He also stressed collaboration between all agencies to make America "resistant and resilient" to cyberattacks. 

"I feel I've been jerked around by every CIA director yet," said Mikulski, when asking about Brennan's commitment to honest. 

"Honesty and truthfulness was inculcated in me in my parents home in New Jersey," he responded. "Honesty is the best policy. I will commit to be honest with this committee and meet your legitimate needs and requirements. It is my objective to make the CIA your favorite agency [over the NSA]." 

Cue the chuckles. 

UPDATE: 2/7/13 3:55 PM ET

Need for optimal transparency and secrecy

Brennan said drone strikes are a last resort to save lives, saying it was important to clarify the administration's actions as people were reacting to a lot of "falsehoods" and misinformation, believing that drone strikes were carried out in retaliation for past transgressions.

Sen. Ron Wyden asked if Brennan would work with him on declassifying information on such programs.

Brennan said the CIA needed to optimize transparency, as well as secrecy.

"If the CIA was involved in any kind of lethal activity in another country, I would make damn sure" that this committee knew about it, said Brennan.

UPDATE: 2/7/13 3:45 PM ET

Never appropriate to disclose classified information

"I do not think it is ever appropriate" to improperly disclose classified information on covert programs, said Brennan, in response to Sen. Richard Burr's question. "I know the importance of keeping those secrets secret," he said, while saying he had engaged in conversations with journalists and reporters.

"Whenever I talk to reporters, I do so at the behest of the White House press office," Brennan said.

"Did you provide any classified information" about the Abbottabad raid, asked Burr.

Brennan said he did not.

UPDATE: 2/7/13 3:40 PM ET

Rockefeller pushes enhanced interrogation topic again

Sen. Jay Rockefeller asked Brennan whether the 6,000 page report on CIA rendition and torture would be required reading for his subordinates, saying it was disturbing that Brennan once said such methods "saved lives."

Rockefeller also about procedures for drone strikes. Brennan said the covert programs were being run "effectively."

UPDATE: 2/7/13 3:25 PM ET

Chambliss asks about enhanced interrogation

Sen. Saxby Chambliss asked what steps Brennan took to prevent the CIA from using enhanced interrogation, what most people call torture.

"I did not take steps" to stop the CIA from using those techniques, Brennan said, explaining that he was not in a position to do so. "I was aware of the program, but I had no oversight," he said, mentioning methods like waterboarding and nudity. Brennan said he expressed his objections personally to many colleagues.

"I never believe it's better to kill a terrorist than to detain him," Brennan said in response to Chambliss' next question. "At this point senator, I do not know what the truth is," he said, referring to the effectiveness of enhanced interrogation in yielding valuable intelligence.

UPDATE: 2/7/13 3:20 PM ET

Feinstein begins line of questioning

Sen. Dianne Feinstein began her line of questioning by asking Brennan why Congress has been banned form seeing the memo that laid out the administration's justification for drone strikes. Brennan said some documents need to be kept in closed circles but these might be made available to staff.

She followed that up with whether enhanced interrogation methods were vital in taking down Osama bin Laden. Brennan said the some parts of the report were "disturbing" but the CIA was not yet finished with reviewing the interviews and documents related to the raid.

UPDATE: 2/7/13 3:10 PM ET

Brennan gives opening statement

Once the room was cleared of Code Pink, Brennan began his opening statement, expressing thanks to former CIA Director David Petraeus, who resigned in the wake of an extramarital affair. He also thanked acting Director of the CIA Michael Morrell and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.

"Historic, social and political transformations continue to sweep through the Middle East," said Brennan. He also mentioned criminal organizations, the nuclear programs of North Korea and Iran and cyberattacks as other concerns of national security.

Brennan said he would look forward to debating issues like enhanced interrogation and other controversial CIA procedures.

"There will be occasions on which we disagree," he said. "Such disagreement is healthy, and important to our democratic process."

"I have a reputation for speaking my mind," Brennan said. "I like to think my candor and bluntness will give you the answers" you are looking for.

"The men and women of the CIA are a national treasure," said Brennan.

Protesters from earlier in the hearing:



UPDATE: 2/7/13 3:00 PM ET

Code Pink stalls hearing

Sen. Feinstein called for the room to be cleared and for Code Pink protesters to be removed from the proceedings as Brennan's hearing was repeatedly interrupted. Some of the slogans on the protesters' cards read "Don't drone me, bro" or "Stop CIA murder."


UPDATE: 2/7/13 2:50 PM ET

Brennan confirmation hearing interrupted by protesters

In his introduction, Virginia Sen. Mark Warner says Brennan has been "an advocate for greater transparency in our counter-terror policy."

Already there have been multiple protesters interrupting the proceedings, with one protester shouting "Stand up to drones, stand up to torture."

UPDATE: 2/7/13 11:52 AM ET

Panetta, Dempsey testify on Benghazi, sequestration

Before Brennan's hearing this afternoon, there's another high-profile hearing on the Hill. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman General Martin Dempsey are testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee on the Sept. 11 attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi that killed four Americans.

Senator Saxby Chambliss, a Republican, had harsh words Dempsey in response to his account of what happened in Benghazi.

"We didn't have the intelligence" to adequately prevent the attack, Panetta said.

Sen. Lindsey Graham later raised his voice insistently while questioning Panetta about the degree to which President Obama sought to be informed about events on the ground.

UPDATE: 2/7/13 7:23 AM ET

John Brennan's hearing expected to focus on drones, enhanced interrogation

John Brennan, President Barack Obama's nominee to head the Central Intelligence Agency, will face Senate scrutiny Thursday during his afternoon confirmation hearing.

Brennan, who was Obama's former counter-intelligence chief, is expected to come under fire for his support of the controversial drone program as well as for his views on using torture during interrogation.

The drone program has drawn criticism from both progressive Democrats and from Republicans concerned that it may result in too much power concentrated in the presidency. Brennan's nomination, therefore, should draw a long hard look from both parties.

After a report by NBC News this week revealed a Justice Department white paper that argued it's legally sound for the White House to kill US citizens believed to be Al Qaeda operatives, the president directed the department to share the classified memo with congressional intelligence committees.

If Brennan moves from the White House to Langley, he'll become the "lead executive authority over all CIA drone strikes," explained Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, speaking to NBC News.

Read the rest of this report.

UPDATE: 2/6/13 12:02 PM ET

A war on terror where the rules don’t apply

"It's been a bad week for Washington’s image," GlobalPost's Jean MacKenzie wrote Wednesday.

"First, a leaked Justice Department memo provided a handy legal framework to justify the US government’s killing of its own citizens without even a semblance of due process. Then a report by a respected international body alleged, in excruciating detail, gross violations of international law by the United States and its allies in a process known as 'extraordinary rendition.'"

Read the rest of her report.

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