WASHINGTON - 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 reading a classified intelligence report on harsh interrogation techniques, he 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 against 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 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.
In a sign that the hearing had focused intense scrutiny on the drone program, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., told reporters after the hearing that she thinks it may be time to lift the secrecy off the program so that U.S. officials can acknowledge the strikes and correct what she said were exaggerated reports of civilian casualties.
Feinstein said she and a number of other senators are considering writing 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 terror cases.
Speaking with uncharacteristic openness about the classified program, Feinstein said the CIA had allowed her staff to make more than 30 visits to the CIA's Langley, Va., headquarters to monitor strikes, but that the transparency needed to be widened.
"I think the process set up internally is a solid process," Feinstein said, 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."
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.
"I think you're the guy for the job, and the only guy for the job," said Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va.
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.