Brennan defends Obama use of drones, counter-terrorism program

President Obama’s nominee to lead the CIA defended the administration's counter-terrorism programs in a confirmation hearing on Thursday that focused on the expanded use of drones against suspected terrorists. 

White House counterterrorism chief John Brennan gave a forceful defense of the drone program, which a Department of Justice white paper this week said was legal even when used to kill U.S. citizens who are suspected of terrorism. 

The days leading up to the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing had featured a clash between the White House and members of Congress, who had demanded more information from the administration on its legal rationale for defending the use of drones to kill even U.S. citizens. 

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Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the leading critic in Congress of the drone program, asked Brennan a series of tough questions on the lack of information on the program, and its legality. 

"[Don’t Americans] have the right to know when their government has the right to kill them?" Wyden asked.

In response, Brennan gave a careful defense of the program but also pledged that under his direction, the CIA would be as open and transparent as possible about the use of armed drones.

He said the government should tell its citizens when drones are used to take out suspected terrorists on foreign soil.

"As far as I am concerned ... The US should [publicly] acknowledge it," he said.

Brennan said the administration has been open to lawmaker's requests for more information for the program, and said the CIA should admit when the strikes go awry.

If an individual, American or otherwise, is mistakenly targeted and killed as a suspected terrorist, the CIA should publicly admit the mistake and the strike itself, Brennan said.

Even before his testimony, Brennan stressed to senators in written responses to their questions that the drone strikes are executed with "extraordinary care."
Brennan said drones “dramatically reduce the danger to U.S. personnel and to innocent civilians,” and that the CIA takes measures to prevent them from causing unnecessary harm.

He also said he did not believe new legislation was needed to authorize the use of drones.

A storm of controversy has swirled around the drone program since Monday’s release of a classified memo that spells out the administration’s legal rationale for targeting Americans abroad. Senators had threatened to hold up Brennan’s confirmation until they received more information about the classified operation.

President Obama extended an olive branch to members of the intelligence panel on the eve of Brennan’s hearing, agreeing to arrange a briefing for them on the legal framework behind the program.

Brennan's hearing was interrupted several times as it began. 

Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) halted the hearing to usher out protesters from Code Pink, who rushed the witness table as Brennan took his seat.

After being warned by Feinstein against any further interruptions, the protesters continued to shout questions and insults at Brennan about the U.S. armed drone program and his role in those efforts.

After interrupting Brennan's opening statement for the third time, Feinstein ordered the Capitol Police to escort the protesters and the rest of the gallery out of the hearing room.

Brennan gave a much more confident presentation in his testimony than former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), who endured a rocky confirmation hearing in the Senate just a week ago. 

Brennan was adroit in answering questions from several Republican senators about Guantanamo Bay, the use of interrogation practices and dealings with foreign governments over terrorism. 

He was not afraid to say when he disagreed with a senator's statement, stressing on more than one occassion his "vehement" disagreement. 

During a sharp exchange with Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho), Brennan took exception to the Republican's suggestion that he was behind a national security leak involving the disclosure of a Saudi Arabian agent who played a role in foiling a plot to place bombs on U.S. commercial flights. 

Risch said he believed "the leak is right in front of me," to which Brennan responded: "I disagree with that vehemently." 

He said he had been a witness to the leak and was not a target of an investigation. 

While Brennan is still scheduled for a classified, closed-door session with the committee next Tuesday, he seemed to only strengthen his chances for confirmation on Thursday. 

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) made clear on Thursday which way he was voting.

"I think you are the right man for the job," the longtime West Virginia Democrat told Brennan.

"The only guy for the job," he added.