He was prodded to defend the administration’s refusal to provide basic information, including the death toll in drone strikes, and was asked to square his assertion that he opposed the CIA’s use of brutal interrogation measures with not trying to stop them while he was in the agency’s leadership ranks during the George W. Bush administration.
The hearing was one of the most heated sessions for a CIA nominee over the past decade, and a rare airing of lawmakers’ frustration with aspects of the way Obama has handled the conflict with al-Qaeda, if not its results.
Brennan delivered a confident and at times combative defense of his record and the administration’s decisions, and emerged from the session on course to be confirmed for the CIA job, perhaps as early as next week.
But Brennan, whose opening remarks were interrupted repeatedly by protesters in the audience, also expressed dismay with the way the administration’s actions have been perceived.
Defending the drone campaign, he said, “We only take such actions as a last resort, to save lives when there is no other alternative.” Protesters who were taken by police out of the hearing “have a misunderstanding of what we do as a government and the care that we take and the agony” that goes into decisions on lethal operations, he said.
Brennan added that he thinks U.S. officials “need to acknowledge it publicly” when civilians are killed in the drone campaign, something the administration has rarely, if ever, done.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, made it clear that she thinks the administration is a victim of its own secrecy.
Noting that she had sought permission to disclose government estimates of civilian casualties to bolster claims of the drones’ accuracy, Feinstein said she was told that “you can’t. It’s classified. For the public, [the drone campaign] doesn’t exist.”
“Well I think that rationale, Mr. Brennan, is long gone,” Feinstein said.
She also indicated, for the first time, that she plans to have the committee examine the creation of a special court to evaluate evidence against Americans who might be targeted, similar to the scrutiny applied to government monitoring of the communications of Americans suspected of having connections to terrorist groups.
The hearing came just hours after the White House surrendered a set of Justice Department memos to the committee that lay out the legal rationale for killing U.S. citizens accused of serving as al-Qaeda operatives abroad.