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Drones, Targeted Killing of Americans, Torture Dominate John Brennan Senate Confirmation Hearing

John Brennan Senate confirmation

Questions regarding enhanced interrogation, drone strikes and targeted killings dominated Thursday’s Senate Intelligence Committee confirmation hearing for John Brennan, President Barack Obama’s nominee for CIA director.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) introduced Brennan by citing his “work ethic, impeccable integrity and determination” and his “commitment to the values that define us as Americans.”

A short time later, protesters from the antiwar group Code Pink began interrupting the proceedings. One woman held up a sign reading, “BRENNAN=DRONE KILLING.” Another woman held up a list containing the names of the hundreds of innocent civilians killed by US drone strikes. Each protester who interrupted the hearing was escorted from the room and arrested, and after several interruptions, Feinstein ordered the room cleared and barred anyone associated with Code Pink from returning.

Brennan then spoke, saying he welcomed a “discussion of the CIA’s past and current activities” and that one of his “highest priorities” would be addressing the committee’s lengthy page report on CIA rendition, detention and interrogation that involved “now-banned interrogation techniques” because it “raises a number of very serious issues.” Sen. Feinstein previously said the 6,000 page torture report revealed “terrible mistakes.” Committee member Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) called the CIA enhanced interrogation program a “disaster” and “low point in our history.”

Sen. Feinstein asked Brennan about the report, parts of which Brennan said he had read and considered “concerning and disturbing” and “rather damning.” He said that the report cast serious doubt on previous information which led him to believe that torture– although the word was never used– and other enhanced interrogation techniques had prevented terrorism or saved American lives.

Brennan also reiterated his opposition to torture and enhanced interrogation techniques such as waterboarding and nudity but admitted he did nothing to try to stop the CIA from practicing them.

“Were EIT’s (enhanced interrogation techniques, aka torture) key to the takedown of Osama bin Laden?” Feinstein inquired. Brennan responded that the “report remains classified.”

Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) asked Brennan if the interrupted drowning technique known as waterboarding constituted torture.

“The attorney general has referred to waterboarding as torture… many people have referred to it as torture,” Brennan replied without directly answering the question. “The term torture has many legal and political implications,” he said, adding that waterboarding “is something that should have been banned long ago and should never have taken place.” Brennan assured Levin that it “would never be brought back” if he is confirmed as CIA director.

Unsatisfied, Levin pressed Brennan to say whether or not he believed waterboarding is torture.

“I am not a lawyer,” he replied. “I cannot address that question.” Levin pressed harder, and Brennan cited the now-infamous Bush-era memos declaring torture legal.

Later, Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-MA) cited a 2007 CBS interview in which Brennan said that waterboarding is “subjecting an individual to severe pain and suffering, which is the classic definition of torture.” Brennan said he still believes this.

Sen. Levin questioned Brennan about questionable statements from US officials such as CIA agent Jose Rodriguez asserting that torture led to the capture of Osama bin Laden. Brennan replied that he hadn’t read the entire Senate report and referred back to the apparent disconnect between what certain officials claimed and what had really transpired.

Levin also grilled Brennan about a “very famous document” concerning a non-existent meeting in Prague between 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta and a member of Saddam Hussein’s intelligence service. That ‘meeting’ was often cited by top Bush administration officials while attempting to sell the invasion of Iraq to a skeptical public. Sen. Levin held up a heavily redacted copy of a classified cable regarding this ‘meeting’ and asked Brennan to declassify it.

“We know (the meeting) never took place,” Levin said. “It’s very significant to the historical record here. We went to war based on allegations there was a relationship between Iraq and the (911) attackers. It is very important this cable be declassified. The only reason to keep it classified is to protect [the Bush] administration.”

Brennan promised to consult with Czech intelligence to see if there were any objections to declassifying the cable.

Sen. Feinstein asked Brennan how he sees his role in the drone strike approval process. Brennan described the administration’s procedure as “as rigorous a process as possible” and sought to ensure the committee that he supported “taking actions necessary to protect the American people but at the same time making sure we do everything possible before we need to resort to lethal force.”

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) introduced the highly controversial Obama administration practice of assassinating Americans suspected of being members of Al Qaeda or associated forces overseas without charge, trial or any due process of law. Wyden decried the “idea of giving any president unfettered power to kill an American without checks and balances” as “troubling.”

“The Fifth Amendment is pretty clear: no deprivation of life, liberty or property without due process of law,” Sen. Angus King (I-ME) asserted later in the hearing. “And we’re depriving American citizens of their lives when we target them with a drone attack.”

“Having the executive (branch) being the prosecution, the judge, the jury and the executioner all in one is very contrary to the traditions and laws of this country,” King stressed.

“Every American has a right to know when their government believes it is allowed to kill them,” Sen. Wyden asserted. “Ensuring Congress has the documents and information it needs to conduct robust oversight is central to our democracy,” he added.

“The actions we take… against individuals where we believe that the intelligence base is so strong and the nature of the threat is so grave and so serious and so imminent that we have no resource but to take action that may involve a lethal strike,” Brennan replied.

Sen. Wyden also expressed his disappointment at being “stonewalled” by the Justice Department, which he accused of failing to follow through on President Obama’s promise to release documents pertaining to the targeted killings of American citizens overseas via unmanned aerial drone attacks.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) discussed recent comments by former US Army General Stanley McChrystal in which he acknowledged that drone strikes cause widespread hatred toward, and backlash against, the United States in countries where they occur.

“They are hated on a visceral level,” McChrystal said of the strikes, adding that they fuel “a perception of American arrogance that says, ‘We can fly where we want, we can shoot where we want, because we can.'”

While agreeing that the US needed to be “very mindful” when carrying out drone strikes, Brennan said he disagreed with Gen. McChrystal’s assessment. He mentioned “people being held hostage by Al Qaeda and who… welcome the work the US government has done with their government to rid them of the Al Qaeda cancer that exists.”

Some Republican members also asked Brennan about September 11, 2012 terrorist attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, as well as about the leaking of classified information to the media.

“Nothing upsets me more… than to see something discussed in a classified area written up the next day in the newspapers,” Sen. Dan Coats (R-IN) said, vowing to delve further into this matter at next Tuesday’s classified hearing.

There were some important issues that were not brought up by committee members during Thursday’s hearing. Anwar al-Awlaki, the US-born radical cleric and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) leader who was assassinated by drone strike, was mentioned. But there were no questions about the separate drone strike that killed his innocent Colorado-born son, 16-year-old Abdulrahman al-Awlaki. The Obama administration has called the teen’s death a case of “collateral damage.”

There were also no questions about Brennan’s false statement that in a one-year period there weren’t any civilians killed by drones due to the “exceptional proficiency and precision” of US drone operators. In fact, during the year in question, the London-based Bureau for Investigative Journalism counted at least 45 innocent Pakistani civilians killed by US drones.

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