WASHINGTON (AP) - CIA Director-designate John Brennan strongly defended anti-terror attacks by unmanned drones Thursday under close questioning at a protest-disrupted confirmation hearing. On a second controversial topic, he said that after years of reading classified intelligence reports he still does not know if waterboarding has yielded useful information.
Despite what he called a public misimpression, Brennan told the Senate Intelligence Committee that drone strikes are used only against targets planning to carry out attacks to hurt the United States, never as retribution for an earlier one. "Nothing could be further from the truth," he declared.
Referring to one American citizen killed by a drone in Yemen in 2011, he said the man, Anwar al-Alawki, had ties to at least three attacks planned or carried out on U.S. soil. They included the Ft. Hood, Texas, shooting that claimed 13 lives in 2009, a failed attempt to down a Detroit-bound airliner the same year and a thwarted plot to bomb cargo planes in 2010.
CIA director nominee John Brennan testifies on Capitol Hill on Thursday during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
"He was intimately involved in activities to kill innocent men women and children, mostly Americans," Brennan said.
In a long afternoon in the witness chair, Brennan declined to say if he believes waterboarding amounts to torture, but he said firmly it is "something that is reprehensible and should never be done again."
Brennan, 57 and President Barack Obama's top anti-terrorism aide, won praise from several members of the committee as the day's proceedings drew to a close, a clear indication that barring an unexpected development, his confirmation as the nation's next head of the CIA is on track. The panel will meet in closed session next week to permit discussion of classified material.
Brennan bristled once during the day, when Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho, accused him of having leaked classified information in a telephone call with former government officials who were preparing to make television appearances.
"I disagree with that vehemently," the nominee shot back.
Brennan made repeated general pledges to increase the flow of information to members of the Senate panel, but he was less specific when it came to individual cases. Asked at one point whether he would provide a list of countries where the CIA has used lethal authority, he replied, "It would be my intention to do everything possible" to comply.
He said he had no second thoughts about having opposed a planned strike against Osama bin Laden in 1998, a few months before the bombings of two U.S. embassies. The plan was not "well-grounded," he said, adding that other intelligence officials also recommended against proceeding. Brennan was at the CIA at the time.
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, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the panel's chairman, 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.