John Brennan – Barack Obama’s nominee for Central Intelligence Agency director – testifies before the Senate intelligence committee today. The hearing offers a rare moment of public scrutiny of the government’s expanded use of drones to kill suspected terrorists, which has returned to the news this week.
By Shannon Bond in New York with Geoff Dyer and Richard McGregor in Washington. All times are GMT.
Good afternoon. As we wait for the hearing to kick off, here’s Geoff Dyer, the FT’s US foreign policy correspondent, writing this week on Brennan’s role in the Obama administration drone programme:
From his windowless White House office, Mr Brennan has been the driving force behind the expansion in the use of drones. For critics on the left who have long complained at drone strikes, the hearing could provide a rare moment of public scrutiny.
Drones are not the only tool the US uses to fight terrorism but, under the Obama administration, they have become the most important and controversial. About 50 drone strikes to kill suspected terrorists were conducted in the Bush era: under Barack Obama, there have been more than 350, in which more than 3,000 people are believed to have died.
From Wired national security reporter Spencer Ackerman, here’s a shot of protesters in the hearing room
Drone strikes were thrust back in headlines this week with the leak of a justice department document laying out the legal justification for killing suspected terrorists who are US citizens.
Late Wednesday the White House said it would allow members of congressional intelligence committees – including the senators who will be grilling Brennan today – to see the full memo justifying the 2011 drone strike in Yemen that killed Anwar al-Awlaki, a US citizen believed to be a leader of an al-Qaeda affiliate.
Brennan has entered the hearing room to shouts of protesters – and chairwoman Dianne Feinstein has asked the Capitol police to clear the room. You can catch the livestream on C-SPAN.
After protesters are cleared from the room, Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California who chairs the committee, reminds the audience that they are to remain “respectful” and asks them to leave if they are unable to sit and listen.
The CIA’s controversial use of drones is covert and has never been officially acknowledged by the US government, but has been widely reported on. Here’s a wrap-up of recent coverage in the FT and elsewhere.
Feinstein, in her opening remarks, says it’s time for more transparency about the drone programme, which is classified.
I think that rationale, Mr. Brennan, is long gone.
Saxby Chambliss, the Republican vice-chair, says he is interested in the CIA’s detention and interrogation programmes – something Brennan knows a lot about from his time as a senior CIA official under George W. Bush.
As Geoff Dyer wrote last month, Brennan was a leading candidate four years ago to head the CIA but withdrew from consideration amid criticism of his links to the US spy agency’s use of waterboarding and other so-called “enhanced” interrogation methods under Bush.
(The job ultimately went to former general David Petraeus, who resigned in November after admitting to an extramarital affair.)
In a letter to Mr Obama at the time, Mr Brennan said he was “a strong opponent of many of the policies of the Bush administration, such as the pre-emptive war in Iraq and coercive interrogation tactics, to include waterboarding”. Many people consider waterboarding and other harsh interrogation methods to be torture.
White House officials say they do not expect Mr Brennan to face similar trouble this time, given his four years of service in the Obama administration.
“The issue has been removed from the debate because the president and John Brennan, as his top counterterrorism adviser, brought those techniques to an end,” said Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser.
Brennan has now been sworn in, but his statement is interrupted by yet another protester.
A tongue-in-cheek observation from the New York Daily News’s Josh Greenman:
Feinstein has halted the hearing, as yet more protesters from Code Pink, the anti-war group, stand up and start shouting. The hearing room will be cleared and audience members let back in one at a time.
From Getty, a shot of Brennan sitting down in front of protesters from when he first walked in the room:
And we’re back – Brennan is giving his opening statement, including a “special salute to David Petraeus” whom he calls a “patriot”.
As Brennan discusses his long tenure in national security – he first joined the CIA in August 1980 – Geoff Dyer has 10 questions the senators should ask Brennan today – including issues of public transparency of drone strikes, judicial oversight and the risk of backlash:
1) Legality. The legal opinion that justifies killing suspected al-Qaeda terrorists who are Americans is being shared with some members of Congress, but is secret for everyone else. If the government claims the authority to kill some of its citizens, at the very least shouldn’t the legal justification be made public?
2) The Decider. According to a leaked summary of the legal opinion, drone strikes can be authorised by an “informed, high-level official”. How senior does that official have to be? Only the president? His counter-terrorism adviser? Military commanders in the field? And what happens if other high-level officials disagree?
3) A Second Opinion. Is it not dangerous for the administration to police itself over deciding who to try and kill? Is there not a case for having a panel of judges oversee targeted killings, just as they do for espionage wiretaps?
Here’s a shot of the largely empty hearing room. Almost everyone except the media has been ejected.
The FT’s Washington bureau chief, Richard McGregor, sends this observation:
The confirmation hearing for John Brennan to head the CIA may have been delayed by numerous Code Pink demonstrations but they may not be very representative of modern public perceptions of the spy agency. At the recent Golden Globe awards, an avowed Hollywood liberal, actor/director Ben Affleck, thanked the “clandestine services” in accepting an award for his film Argo, about how US intelligence helped spirit some US diplomats out of Iran after the Islamist revolution. At the same awards, two other actors, Claire Danes and Jessica Chastain, won awards for their portrayals of selfless, hardworking (if slightly overwrought and psychotic) agents in the Showtime series Homeland’ and the film Zero Dark Thirty respectively. It is no coincidence that the CIA, once reluctant to cooperate with Hollywood, now has a liaison office to do just that.
In his opening statement, Brennan says the war on terror will continue. “We remain at war with al-Qaeda”, he warns, and “they still seek to carry out deadly strikes on our homeland”.
Here’s the full text of Brennan’s statement.
Brennan is the latest nominee to President Obama’s second term cabinet to face a Senate hearing, following newly confirmed Secretary of State John Kerry and Chuck Hagel, the would-be defence secretary subjected to harsh grilling at his appearance last week.
Find out more about other new appointments and the people whom Barack Obama considers his “brain trust” with our interactive graphic of Obama’s inner circle.
Geoff Dyer notes:
In his opening statement, Brennan gives nod to the controversy over targeted killings, saying that he has “promoted public discussion”, but provides no details of any new ways to increase transparency.
Feinstein asks whether Brennan will be “an advocate” in providing legal documents – such as the classified memo justifying drone strikes against US citizens – to the committee. Brennan says he will to the best of his ability.
Her next question: were enhanced interrogation techniques key to taking down Osama bin Laden? Brennan doesn’t answer. He says the CIA hasn’t finished its review of the information, but says he will come back to the committee once that has happened.
How does Brennan see his role as CIA director in the process of approving drone strikes? He says actions must be grounded in legal process and intelligence.
Chambliss, the Republican from Georgia, is up next. He asks if Brennan if he advised then-CIA director George Tenet against an operation to kill bin Laden in 1998. Brennan says it was “not a worthwhile operation” and did not go forward because other people might have been killed.
Chambliss then wants to know if Brennan took steps to stop “enhanced” interrogation techniques – such as waterboarding – used by the CIA under the Bush administration. Brennan says he was “not in the chain of command” but had expressed “personal objections” to his colleagues.
“I was aware of the programme, I was cc-ed on some of those documents, I was not invovled in oversight of its operations,” Brennan says.
Chambliss asks why Brennan had previously said the CIA’s action had “saved lives.” Brennan says “it was clearly my impression there was valuable information that was coming out” from enhanced interrogation of terror suspects. But “I never believe it is better to kill a terrorist than to detain him,” he says.
When Chambliss asked again if enhanced interrogation saved lives, Brennan conceded: “I don’t know what the truth is.”
Geoff Dyer calls Chambliss’s questions “effective”:
Brennan tries to wiggle out of previous statements which appear to give some support to Bush-era torture activities at the CIA, including a 2007 comment that they “saved lives”. He says that a classified Senate intelligence committee report into torture has made him re-think. “I do not now know what the truth is.”
Jay Rockefeller, Democrat from West Virginia, says the 6,000-page Senate intelligence committee report into torture came about because the CIA wouldn’t communicate with the committee. “We heard nothing from the intelligence agency…we had to do our own investigation,” he says. It will “go down in history”. (Of course, it is classified so we can’t judge for ourselves.)
So will Brennan have his staff read it?
“I am looking forward to taking advantage of any lessons I can,” Brennan replies.
From Richard McGregor:
Many members of the Senate Intelligence Committee are clearly still very peeved about the lack of co-operation in the past from the CIA about its conduct in the war on terror, in particular in relation to ‘EITs’.
EIT stands for Enhanced Interrogation Techniques, the bureaucratic term for what most people would call torture. The committee report, which has never been published, is 6,000 pages long, with 30,000 footnotes, according to Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia. “We did this because we heard nothing from the intelligence agencies,” he said. Mr Brennan admits that reading the 300-page summary of the report has changed his attitude about the conduct of EITs.
Republican Richard Burr of North Carolina asks if Brennan will give the committee intelligence analysis for review? Yes, he says.
What about raw intelligence to judge the accuracy of the analysis? Brennan says he will give all requests “full consideration”.
Burr says in the course of examining the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, where the US ambassador and other Americans were killed, the CIA “has repeatedly delayed and in some cases flatly refused to provide documents”. Brennan says he will try to accommodate as best as he can.
Burr moves on to the question of leaks – some people have alleged that Brennan was the source of details on the raid that killed bin Laden.
“I do not believe it is appropriate to improperly disclose” classified information, Brennan says. “I never provided classified information to reporters.” As for Abbottabad – “No, I did not.”
Richard McGregor writes:
Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, has been amongst the most persistent members of Congress in demanding information from the White House and the CIA about the drones programme and the legal authority behind it, especially the authority to kill American citizens abroad without trial.
He demands Mr Brennan provide a list of countries where the CIA has used “lethal force”. Pakistan is one example – especially in the case of the Osama bin Laden raid. Mr Wyden appeared to overreach – asking for a list which covered the CIA’s entire history. (It would be a very long list.)
But Mr Brennan at least agrees that while he in charge of the CIA, he would inform the committee. As Senator Barbara Mikulski notes a few minutes later, she is concerned that instead of intelligence collection and analysis, the CIA has become more of a paramilitary organisation. Mr Brennan says he has similar concerns – and he will look at the balance when he takes over.
Democrat Barbara Mikulski of Maryland says she is worried the drone programme represents “mission creep” for the CIA – that the agency is becoming militarised.
Brennan suggests that he will scale back the CIA’s operation of drone strikes on suspected terrorists. He says that some of the CIA’s activities since 9/11 as “a bit of an aberration”. The CIA should be able to some covert operations, but it “should not be doing traditional military activities and operations”.
Mikulski also takes up the tone of many members of the committee, complaining that she’s “been jerked around by every CIA director” except Leon Panetta.
Brennan promises to make himself her “favourite” national security director.
Geoff Dyer sends this on the most heated exchange yet:
James Risch, an Idaho Republican, accuses Brennan of leaking information about an operation to catch Ibrahim al-Asiri, a bombmaker for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen. “It seems to me that the leak that the justice department is looking for is right here in front of us,” Risch says.
Brennan responds: “I disagree with you vehemently, senator”.
Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan, presses Brennan on whether waterboarding is torture.
Brennan respondes that he is “not a lawyer” and says “I cannot point to a single legal document” defining waterboarding as torture. However, he also says it’s “reprehensible” and should never have been used.
Dan Coats, Republican from Indiana, turns the topic back to leaked information. Brennan won’t be drawn into specifics, saying that the operations are still classified. Asked about the notion of an “authorised leak”, Brennan says it is an oxymoron.
The disparity between Americans’ view of drone strikes and the opinions of other countries is stark. A Pew poll last spring found that while 62 per cent of Americans supported the attacks – including majorities of Democrats and independents – there was “considerable opposition” in most other nations.
Disapproval is strongest in Greece (90%), Egypt (89%), Jordan (85%), Turkey (81%), Spain (76%), Brazil (76%) and Japan (75%).
The only countries in the survey, aside from the US, where opposition to the drone campaigns was muted were Britain, where the public was almost evenly divided (44% approve, 47% disapprove) and India, where 32% approved and 21% disapproved, but nearly half (47%) had no opinion.
Mark Udall, the Democrat from Colorado, starts off by saying he believes “the presumption of transparency should be the rule, not the exception.”
He notes that accurate information about CIA activities “remains classified” while inaccurate information has been declassified and repeated. His question to Brennan: Does the CIA have a responsibility to correct inaccurate information? Brennan says yes.
But asked whether the Senate’s classified report on torture should be able to be declassified with redactions, Brennan does not give an answer.
Though Arizona Senator John McCain is not on the intelligence committee, he submitted questions to Brennan. Last week, McCain was one of the most combative questioners of defence secretary nominee Chuck Hagel. McCain is a well-known veteran of the Vietnam war and was held prisoner and tortured for more than five years.
His questions focused on torture, drone strikes, the attack in Benghazi and national security leaks. All of these topics have been addressed so far today, but the gravitas that McCain brings to the situation makes them worth a read.
Florida senator and rising Republican star Marco Rubio tries to probe Brennan on the attack on the Benghazi consulate and suggests the administration dropped the ball by not getting access to one of the suspected attackers who was detained in Tunisia and then released. Brennan responds that Tunisia released the man because “they work within their rule of law, just as we do”. He adds that “we had nothing on him”.
Brennan says the CIA lends its expertise in interrogations to other agencies – like the FBI – and to foreign partners. But he says the CIA should not be in the business of holding detainees.
“The CIA does not have by statute any kind of detention authority.”
On Wired’s Danger Room blog, Spencer Ackerman reports that Brennan has won a powerful endorsement: Ben Emmerson, the UN investigator who is conducting an inquiry into the legality of drone strikes and targeted killing. Emmerson says he believes Brennan will impose “restraint” over the programme and bring it more closly under White House control.
“By putting Brennan in direct control of the CIA’s policy [of targeted killings], the president has placed this mediating legal presence in direct control of the positions that the CIA will adopt and advance, so as to bring the CIA much more closely under direct presidential and democratic control,” Emmerson says.
Emmerson says he can’t know if Brennan will actually carry out fewer drone strikes at the CIA. “What I’m saying is, Brennan has been the driving force for the imposition of a single consistent and coherent analysis, both legal and operational, as to the way the administration will pursue this program,” he explains. “I’m not suggesting that I agree with that analysis. That’s not a matter for me, it’s a matter for states, and there’s a very considerable disagreement about that. But what I am saying is that what he will impose is restraint over the wilder ambitions of the agency’s hawks to treat this program in a manner that is ultimately unaccountable and secret.”
Susan Collins of Maine asks if the Obama administration’s policy has shifted to kill not capture, with the expanded use of drone strikes.
“There’s never been an occasion that I’m aware of when we had the opportunity to capture and we ordered a lethal strike instead,” Brennan says. “We’re not doing targeted strikes where we could have captured; we’re doing strikes where we can’t.”
The Republican senator then quotes former CIA chief Michael Hayden and retired general Stanley McChrystal worrying that the strikes are creating a backlash that is undermining the stability of governments and creating more terrorism.
“I would not agree,” Brennan says. People in these countries “are being held hostage to al-Qaeda” and they “welcome US efforts to rid them of the al-Qaeda cancer.”
Martin Heinrich, Democrat from New Mexico, returns to the subject of waterboarding and “enhanced interrogation”.
Referencing Brennan’s earlier quote that the techniques produced good intelligence, Heinrich asks if he would correct the record if the committee’s report finds otherwise. Brennan says yes.
Angus King, the independent senator from Maine, is concerned about overlap between the CIA and the military. “We can’t be duplicating a whole set of capabilities and priorities and officers and everything else.” Brennan says he agrees and will address this more specifically in the classified hearing scheduled for Tuesday.
King moves on to ask about oversight of drone strikes outside of the executive branch – can’t it be overseen by something like the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the body that grants surveillance warrants?
For the president to “be the judge, jury and executioner is against the values of America,” King says.
Brennan says he wouldn’t want to limit the ability to take action quickly – but says “it’s worthy of discussion.”
“American citizens by definition are due much greater due process by dint of their citizenship,” he adds.
On to the second round of questioning – senators are supposed to keep their questions and answers to five minutes.
Feinstein, the chairwoman, once again leads off. She probes the case of Anwar al-Awlaki, a US citizen suspected to be the leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula.
“When people hear ‘American citizen,’ they think of someone upstanding,” she says. But Awlaki was “not upstanding”.
She draws out from Brennan that Awlaki was connected to the attempted bombings of an airliner in Detroit, Times Square, and two cargo aircraft. He won’t discuss “specifics” of a connection between Awlaki and Nidal Hasan, the man responsible for a mass shooting at the Army base in Fort Hood, Texas.
Brennan says Awlaki was not just a propagandist but part of al-Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula’s operational efforts – part of the definition under which the leaked memo says a strike on a US citizen is permissible.
Was it possible to arrest Awlaki in Yemen, Feinstein asks? Brennan replies that there are parts of the country that are “ungoverned” and “beyond the reach of the Yemeni government and security services”.
Feinstein’s comment that Americans are not “proud” of Anwar al-Awlaki as a US citizen has raised eyebrows:
Burr starts his question with a perhaps ill-conceived joke:
Back to Wyden, who asks if an individual US citizen should be provided with the opportunity to surrender.
Brennan replies, “We have repeatedly said openly and publicly that we are at war with al-Qaeda” and that any American that joins al-Qaeda “knows full well that they have joined an organisation that is at war with the US…and we’re going to do everything to protect the lives of Americans.”
He goes on to say that any member of al-Qaeda does have the right to surrender at any point. Wyden is clearly dissatisfied with this response.
Dan Coats and Susan Collins both ask about the rise of Islamist, al-Qaeda-affiliated groups across north Africa. Brennan acknowledges the “metastasising” of terrorist groups, pointing to local issues in places like Mali – but also holds up Somalia as a success story, where he says the US and its allies have weakened the al-Shabaab group.
Asked whether he would bring a partisan viewpoint from the White House to the CIA, Brennan replies:
The hearing has wrapped up, with Feinstein praising Brennan for being “more forthright, more honest, more direct” than anyone else who has testified before her.
As mentioned earlier, there will be a second, classified (and therefore closed to the public) hearing next week.
But as of now, it seems like Brennan’s path to Langley is fairly clear. “I think you are going to be a fine and strong leader of the CIA,” Feinstein tells him.
We’re wrapping up our coverage here but you can follow this story and all the day’s news on FT.com.
Final thoughts from Geoff Dyer:
Despite the sort of protest that has not been seen since the early days of the Iraq war, Brennan emerged unscathed from what could have been a tricky confirmation hearing.
The White House’s decision last night to allow the Senate and House intelligence committees to see the legal memo on targeted killings of American terrorist suspects took some of the heat out of the issue. Many senators from both parties seemed more eager to talk about Bush-era torture than Obama-era drone strikes.
The possible concessions he offered were a hint that the CIA might reduce its use of drone strikes, letting the military take control, and his promise to look at the idea of judicial review for targeted killings involving Americans. But on both counts, he left plenty of wiggle room. A smooth confirmation looks highly likely.