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Brennan defends drone strikes

By Kimberly Dozier

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Feb. 7 2013 11:02 p.m. MST

Brennan was questioned extensively about leaks to the media about an al-Qaida plot to detonate a new type of underwear bomb on a Western airline. He acknowledged trying to limit the damage to national security from the disclosures.

On May 7 of last year, The Associated Press reported that the CIA thwarted an ambitious plot by al-Qaida's affiliate in Yemen to destroy a U.S.-bound airliner, using a bomb with a sophisticated new design around the one-year anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden. The next day, the Los Angeles Times reported that the would-be bomber was cooperating with U.S. authorities.

During Thursday's hearing, Risch and Sen. Dan Coats of Indiana were among those who contended Brennan had inadvertently revealed that the U.S. had a spy inside Yemen's al-Qaida branch when, hours after the first AP report appeared, he told a group of media consultants that "there was no active threat during the bin Laden anniversary because ... we had inside control of the plot."

The hearing was interrupted repeatedly at its outset, including once before it had begun. Eventually, Feinstein briefly ordered the proceedings halted and the room cleared so those re-entering could be screened to block obvious protesters.

Brennan is a veteran of more than three decades in intelligence work, and is currently serving as Obama's top counter-terrorism adviser in the White House. Any thought he had of becoming CIA director four years ago vanished amid questions about the role he played at the CIA when the Bush administration approved waterboarding and other forms of "enhanced interrogation" of suspected terrorists.

On the question of waterboarding, Brennan said that while serving as a deputy manager at the CIA during the Bush administration, he was told such interrogation methods produced "valuable information." Now, after reading a 300-page summary of a 6,000-page report on CIA interrogation and detention policies, he said he does "not know what the truth is."

The shouted protests centered on CIA drone strikes that have killed three American citizens and an unknown number of foreigners overseas.

It was a topic very much on the mind of the committee members who eventually will vote on Brennan's confirmation.

In the hours before the hearing began, Obama ordered that a classified paper outlining the legal rationale for striking at U.S. citizens abroad be made available for members of the House and Senate intelligence panels to read.

It was an attempt to clear the way for Brennan's approval, given hints from some lawmakers that they might hold up confirmation unless they had access to the material.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said he was encouraged when Obama called him on the telephone to inform him of his decision. But he said that when he went to read the material he became concerned the Department of Justice "is not following through" on the presidential commitment. Prodded to look into the matter, Brennan said he would.

Wyden made the drone strikes the main focus of his time to question Brennan, asking at one point what could be done "so that the American people are brought into this debate and have a full understanding of what rules" are for their use.

Brennan said the day's hearings were part of that effort, and he said he backs speeches by officials as a way to explain counter-terrorism programs. He said there is a "misimpression by the American people" who believe drone strikes are aimed at suspects in past attacks. Instead, he said, "we only take such actions as a last resort to save lives" when there is no other alternative in what officials believe is an imminent threat.

Fewer than 50 strikes took place during the Bush administration, while more than 360 strikes have been launched under Obama, according to the website The Long War Journal, which tracks the operations.

Associated Press writers Julie Pace, Lara Jakes, Donna Cassata and David Espo contributed to this story

Follow Dozier on Twitter: twitter.com/KimberlyDozier

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