WASHINGTON — The confirmation hearing Thursday of John Brennan to be CIA director reopened scrutiny of a wide range of controversies that have dogged the country for more than a decade, ranging from the Obama administration’s embrace of targeted killings to the Bush administration’s use of enhanced interrogation techniques many equate with torture.
Senate Intelligence Committee members complained that CIA directors for the past decade, and the Obama administration more recently, had failed to fully cooperate with Congress’ efforts to oversee the country’s intelligence community.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., captured the flavor of the questioning when she charged that in her 10 years on the committee, every CIA director since George Tenet, with the exception of current Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, had obfuscated, misled and lied to the committee. Tenet held the post from 1997 to 2004.
“With the exception of Mr. Panetta, I feel I’ve been jerked around by every CIA director,” she said.
Brennan, 57, repeatedly said he expected things would be different during his tenure. “If I am confirmed, a trust deficit between the committee and the CIA would be wholly unacceptable to me,” he pledged.
Critics of President Barack Obama’s counterterrorism efforts were unconvinced.
“John Brennan’s refusal to unequivocally call waterboarding torture is Orwellian, and his hollow claim that drone strike policy complies with the law is wrong,” said Frank Jannuzi of Amnesty International, the human rights advocacy group. “If the last decade has taught us anything, it’s that unchecked presidential power, coupled with efforts to twist and reinterpret international law to justify virtually any actions on the part of the government, leads to human rights violations.”
The issues committee members raised were an indication of how unsettled many controversies remain from the last two presidential administrations. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., pointedly demanded that Brennan, once installed, take steps to declassify a memo that he said would debunk reports that 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta had met with an agent of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in Prague before the 2001 attacks -- an assertion that had been used to build enthusiasm for the Iraq war.
Later, Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., blasted the current White House’s slowness in surrendering documents the committee has requested for its investigation into the attacks six months ago in Benghazi, Libya, that killed the U.S. ambassador to that country and three other Americans..
Brennan, who Obama nominated after retired Army Gen. David Petraeus resigned in November following his admission of an extramarital affair, is expected to win confirmation as the agency’s fifth director in nearly nine years.
But his hearing came as the Obama administration faces growing questions about the legality of its top-secret program of targeted killings of alleged terrorists, including Americans, and the number of civilians who have died in hundreds of missile strikes on Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia by the CIA’s drone aircraft.
Brennan, a former CIA station chief in Saudi Arabia who serves as Obama’s counterterrorism adviser, is a chief architect of the program, which the administration contends is constitutional. But the administration was compelled on Wednesday to provide the committee with the classified Justice Department legal opinion on the program’s legality following the leak of a confidential white paper, which outlined its case that Obama was empowered to order the 2011 killing in Yemen by a drone of Anwar al Awlaki, an American who became a leader of al Qaida’s branch in the Arabian Peninsula.
At least three other Americans, including Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, and an estimated 3,500 other people have been killed in drone attacks since 2003.
Brennan vigorously defended the program, saying that targets are selected through a rigorous review procedure based on accurate intelligence. Strikes, he said, are ordered only as “a last resort” after a determination that terrorists are beyond capture. He insisted that the strikes are designed to prevent imminent terrorist attacks, not to avenge past operations.
“Any actions we take fully comport with our law,” he said, pushing back on charges by some prominent legal scholars and civil and human rights groups that the program is unconstitutional.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the panel’s chairwoman, who for more than a year has called on the administration to make public more information on targeted killings, said the panel has “done significant oversight” that has verified the administration’s claims that annual civilian casualties have “typically been in the single digits.”
But she complained that the administration is still withholding eight legal opinions pertaining to the program and said that the administration had prevented the committee’s staff from reading the Justice Department opinion that had been given to the committee ahead of the hearing.
Asserting that he was a proponent of greater transparency, Brennan said that he would advocate the release of those documents to the committee.
Feinstein was joined by other lawmakers in questioning Brennan about the CIA’s use on al Qaida detainees of waterboarding, sleep deprivation and other harsh interrogation practices that many experts consider torture and which were adopted after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. At the time, Brennan served as a senior CIA executive.
Brennan reiterated that while he was aware of the program, he was not involved in it and wasn’t in a position to halt the practices. He insisted that he had raised his “personal objections” in conversations with other top officials.
But Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the panel’s senior Republican, seemed to question Brennan’s assertion, saying that the committee has 50 emails concerning the program – and the information it produced –that Brennan had received. He added that none of Brennan’s former colleagues could recall his objecting to the program.
“I was copied on thousands upon thousands . . . of e-mail distributions,” Brennan said.
He declined several times to describe waterboarding as torture, but he agreed that it is “reprehensible and something that should not be done.” Obama banned the use of the procedure and other hard techniques after he took office in 2009.
The hearing provided new insights into a classified six-year, 6,000-page report by the committee on the interrogation program, with several senators saying that it found CIA officials misrepresented the information produced from the use on al Qaida detainees of waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques.
“There can never be that kind of situation again, where . . . we have to tell you what’s going wrong in your agency,” said Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., who added that the program was “executed by personnel without relevant experience, managed incompetently by senior officials who did not pay attention to crucial details, and corrupted by personal and pecuniary conflicts of interest.”
“It was sold to policymakers and lawyers of the White House, the Department of Justice and Congress, with grossly inflated claims of professionalism and effectiveness, so-called lives saved,” he said.
Brennan was pressed several times on whether he concurred with former senior CIA officials who insist that the methods had produced intelligence that led to the location and death of Osama bin Laden in a Navy SEAL raid in May 2011, or if he accepted the report’s findings that they had not.
He conceded that during that period he had believed that the interrogations produced “valuable information” but was shocked by the report’s revelations. But he declined to say whether he accepted its conclusions, saying he first wanted a chance to review the CIA’s rebuttal.
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