In a rare challenge to President Obama, Senate liberals spent Thursday afternoon openly questioning the administration's national security policies, particularly the practice of covertly killing suspected terrorists abroad and the White House’s unwillingness to discuss it with Congress. For more than three hours, Democratic members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence interrogated the president’s choice to be the next director of the Central Intelligence Agency, John Brennan.
“What do you think needs to be done to ensure that members of the public understand more about when the government thinks it's allowed to kill them,” asked Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) of American citizens, in one of several questions aimed indirectly at Obama’s expansive use of drone strikes to include, possibly, targets inside the United States.
“I think the American people would be quite pleased to know that we've been very disciplined, very judicious, and we only use these authorities and these capabilities as a last resort,” Brennan replied.
For much of the confirmation hearing, senators scolded Brennan, who is the White House’s top counterterrorism official and czar of the Obama administration’s drone use, for what they argued was the intelligence community’s inadequate disclosure of controversial detention and interrogation techniques. The committee has produced its own 6,000-page report after six years of investigations. It was completed in December, according to the Wall Street Journal
“We did this because we heard nothing from the intelligence agency. We had no way of being briefed. They would not tell us what was going on, so we had to do our own investigation, and we're pretty good at it,” said Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV). “It's a magnificent piece of work. I think it's a piece of history.”
Brennan called the report, which remains classified, a top priority and said he read the 300-page summary and would read the entire volume if confirmed.
“There clearly were a number of things -- many things that I read in that report that were very concerning and disturbing to me,” he said, including “mismanagement of the program, misrepresentation of the information, providing inaccurate information. And it was rather damning.”
Brennan defended the administration’s use of drone strikes, however, calmly and thoroughly. The U.S., he argued, has never preferred to kill, instead of capture, a terrorism suspect. Brennan also defended the CIA’s interrogations of suspects at sites outside of the United States, including those in foreign or U.S. military custody.
“It is understandable that there is great interest in the legal basis as well as the thresholds, criteria, processes, procedures, approvals and reviews of such actions,” he told the Senate in his opening statement. “I have strongly promoted such public discussion with the Congress and with the American people, as I believe that our system of government and our commitment to transparency demands nothing less.”
Brennan, who started his career at CIA and whose nomination has generated excitement at Langley, is expected to win easy confirmation.
“A 24-year-old fresh out of graduate school, I arrived at Langley in August 1980 as a GS-9 'career trainee,' determined to do my part for national security as one of this nation's intelligence officers,” he told the Senate.
Brennan repeatedly deflected senators’ more pointed questions on his opinions of torture or “enhanced interrogation techniques,” referred to sterilely in committee dialogue as “EITs.” (Rockefeller referred to the EITC before realizing his error. “Sorry, that's earned income tax credit.") Brennan led many answers with “I’m not a lawyer…” before offering his views, including that he opposes the use of waterboarding.
“I professed my personal objections to it. But I did not try to stop it,” he said, noting he was not in a chain of command to do so.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), the committee chair, said she wanted more disclosure of targeted drone strikes but was stymied by CIA. The committee, she claimed, has verified the administration’s claims that there are few civilian casualties from the program, despite media accounts indicating otherwise. She argued CIA lacked standing to continue refusing to acknowledge that the strikes occur to the public.
“I have been calling and others have been calling…for increased transparency on the use of targeted force for over a year, including the circumstances in which such force is directed against U.S. citizens and noncitizens alike,” she said. “When I asked to give out the actual numbers, I'm told, you can't. And I say, why not? ‘Because it's classified. It's a covert program. For the public, it doesn't exist.’ Well, I think that rationale, Mr. Brennan, is long gone.”
The ranking Republican, Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), also complained about the intelligence community’s lack of openness with their civilian watchdogs in the Senate.
“Far too often, the committee is facing unnecessary, and frankly, legally questionable obstacles in receiving needed oversight information from the intelligence community.”
Rockefeller complained that he was forbidden from talking even to other senators about intelligence information, and said that staff and other experts should be allowed to learn more about U.S. intelligence for greater oversight.
“I'm going to pour out my frustration on dealing with the Central Intelligence Agency and dealing with various administrations about trying to get information,” he said. “Why was it that they felt that we were so unworthy of being trusted? Why was it that they were willing to talk to Pat Roberts and me or Saxby Chambliss and Dianne Feinstein but not anybody else until we literally bludgeoned them, Kit Bond and I, into agreeing to include everybody? Like Carl Levin's not trustworthy? You know, I mean, it's amazing.”
Wyden pressed Brennan to have President Obama instruct the Justice Department to release its legal opinions on several intelligence matters that the committee has requested, in full. “The committee has been just stonewalled on several other requests, particularly with respect to secret law.”
“Yes, I will, senator,” Brennan replied.