WASHINGTON — Nominated to head the CIA, John Brennan told a protest-disrupted Senate confirmation hearing Thursday the United States employs drone strikes only as a deterrent against imminent terrorist threats, not as punishment for previous actions, firmly defending the controversial attacks that have killed three Americans and an unknown number of foreigners.
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said of the idea that the U.S. uses the strikes by unmanned aircraft as retaliation in the broad fight against terrorism.
On another thorny topic, under sometimes-combative questioning from senators, he conceded that after years of intelligence work he is uncertain whether the use of waterboarding in interrogations has yielded valuable information.
He declined several times to say whether waterboarding is torture, but he did say it is “something that is reprehensible and should never be done again.”
In hours of questioning from the Senate Intelligence Committee, Brennan made repeated general pledges to increase the flow of information to members of the 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.
At another point, 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 Republican Sens. James Risch of Idaho and 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.”
Brennan acknowledged the comments about “inside control” but denied that they revealed any secret elements associated with the U.S. operation.
“I think I have the leak right here,” Risch said.
Bristling, Brennan shot back, “I disagree with that vehemently.”
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.
In a statement at the beginning of Thursday’s session, Brennan said the United States remains at war with al-Qaida and other terrorists and is under “daily cyberattack” by foreign countries and others.
He said historic transformations continue sweeping through the Middle East and North Africa, with “major implications for our interests, Israel’s security, our Arab partners and the prospects for peace and stability throughout the region.” Additionally, he said that Iran and North Korea “remain bent on pursuing nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missile delivery systems.”