CIA director-designate John Brennan’s vigorous defense of drone strikes to kill terror suspects — even US citizens — overseas is causing key lawmakers to consider lifting secrecy from what has become an important weapon in the fight against al-Qaeda and push to regulate its use.
Brennan, US President Barack Obama’s top counterterror adviser, was grilled for more than three hours on Thursday before the Senate Intelligence Committee on the drone program he leads, as well as on the CIA’s harsh interrogation techniques during former US president George W. Bush’s administration, which he denounced, and on leaks of classified information to the media, which Brennan vehemently denied being a part of.
Despite Brennan’s wide-ranging testimony and the White House’s release of a top secret memo explaining its legal rationale for the strikes just hours before the confirmation hearing began, some senators afterward said it was time to bring the drone program into the open.
In a hearing that was marred by anti-drone protests that brought it to a brief halt at the outset, Brennan told the committee that missile strikes by the unmanned drones are used only against targets planning to carry out attacks against the US, never as retribution for an earlier one.
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said.
Referring to one US citizen killed by a drone in Yemen in 2011, he said Anwar al-Awlaki had ties to at least three attacks planned or carried out on US soil. They included the Fort 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.
“He was intimately involved in activities to kill innocent men women and children, mostly Americans,” Brennan said.
The committee’s chairwoman, Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, told reporters after the hearing that she wanted to open more of the program to the public so US officials can acknowledge the strikes and correct what she said were exaggerated reports of civilian casualties.
Feinstein said she and other senators were considering legislation to set up a special court system to regulate drone strikes, similar to the one that signs off on government surveillance in espionage and terrorism cases.
“I think the process set up internally is a solid process,” Feinstein said of the methods used to decide when to launch drones and against whom, but added: “I think there’s an absence of knowing exactly who is responsible for what decision. So I think we need to look at this whole process and figure a way to make it transparent and identifiable.”