Brennan’s CIA bid chance to strike back at critics
WASHINGTON (AP) — A Senate hearing on John Brennan’s nomination to head the CIA could lay bare some parts of the secret war against al-Qaida: lethal drone strikes from secret bases against even American terror suspects, harsh interrogation methods and long detention of suspects without due process.
Some of the practices produced revulsion among some in Congress and the public, but the outcry has been muted because Brennan and others say that these harsh and secretive methods may have saved American lives.
Those issues will be front and center in the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing Thursday for Brennan — a chance for him to answer criticism that he backed the detention and interrogation policy while he served at the CIA under President George W. Bush, charges that stymied his first attempt to head the intelligence agency in 2008.
Brennan has defended the missile strikes by Predator or Reaper drones as a more humane form of war. Aides have portrayed him as cautious in their use, restraining others at the CIA or military who would use them more often, even though as the White House’s counterterror czar he has presided over an explosion of drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Less than 50 strikes took place during the Bush administration while more than 360 strikes have been launched under President Barack Obama, according to the website The Long War Journal, which tracks the casualties.
Administration officials say Brennan would further limit the use of drones by the CIA and leave the majority of strikes to the military.
The CIA’s drone strikes primarily focus on al-Qaida and Taliban targets in the tribal regions of Pakistan, while the military has launched strikes against al-Qaida targets in Yemen and Somalia.
The CIA also carries out strikes in Yemen from a base in Saudi Arabia, including one that killed three American citizens: Anwar al-Awlaki, his 16-year-old-son and Samir Khan. Al-Awlaki was linked to the planning and execution of several attacks targeting U.S. and Western interests, including the attempt to down a Detroit-bound airliner in 2009 and the plot to bomb cargo planes in 2010. His son was killed in a separate strike on a suspected al-Qaida den. Khan was an al-Qaida propagandist.
The location of the base was first disclosed by The New York Times in a story that previewed Brennan’s hearing, highlighting the sensitive issues that the hearings will bring into the open. The Associated Press first reported the construction of the base in June 2011 but withheld the exact location at the request of senior administration officials. Once it was disclosed, the AP considered the agreement to be no longer in place.
Democrats in Congress have begun to express stronger opposition to the use of drones, but on Wednesday Obama found an unlikely ally in Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, who expressed his “100 percent” support of the use of drones against terror suspects.
Brennan will also face questions about charges that White House officials leaked details of the administration’s national security policies, including its cyberattacks against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, to burnish Obama’s standing as commander in chief ahead of last year’s presidential election. Brennan himself has come under fire by Republican lawmakers who believe he gave the media too many details in news conferences after the 2011 killing of al-Qaida mastermind Osama bin Laden.
The Obama White House launched a sweeping investigation led by two Justice Department lawyers in response to congressional ire over the leaks. White House officials have defended briefings given by Brennan as authorized and backed by the president himself, who they say has the ultimate authority to declassify information.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., who has strongly criticized the administration’s release of information on its national security programs, predicted “lots of questions about leaks and detention” at the Senate hearings, but he also predicted that Brennan would ultimately be confirmed.
When he joined the White House as the top counterterrorism advisor in 2009, Brennan publicly decried the interrogation practices, saying they backfired and produced more terrorists, leading him to urge the newly elected president to stop them.
Some former and current U.S. intelligence officials said Brennan was silent in CIA meetings during the Bush administration when such practices were described, because it wasn’t his place to object to a White House-approved policy that was run by another CIA department. Others said he could have objected to any subject raised at any briefing in keeping with CIA custom. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss the top-secret meetings publicly.
“Mr. Brennan will likely address these questions at his hearing, but John has said previously that he was a strong opponent of coercive interrogation techniques, including waterboarding,” said National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor. “Additionally, he did not play a role in the creation, execution or oversight of these programs. When Mr. Brennan was named the president’s top counterterrorism advisor and was in a position of influence over decisions about interrogations, he advised the president to ban such techniques.”
Brennan moved from his job as deputy executive CIA director in 2003 to become director of the Terrorist Threat Integration Center, and then interim director of its next incarnation, the National Counterterrorism Center. When Bush’s second term began, Brennan left government to run The Analysis Corp., which provides counterterror analysis to government agencies, from 2005 to 2008. After Obama’s election, he returned to the government payroll, in 2009, as the White House counterterror czar, where he made public his views on harsh interrogation.
“Tactics such as waterboarding were not in keeping with our values as Americans, and these practices have been rightly terminated and should not and will not happen again,” Brennan said in an August 2009 speech to the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
That statement represented an evolution from earlier statements to the media.
In a CBS News interview in 2007, Brennan acknowledged that the practices came close to torture, but he seemed to defend them. “There has been a lot of information that has come out from these interrogation procedures that the agency has, in fact, used against the real hard-core terrorists,” Brennan said. “It has saved lives.”
One close associate of Brennan said his thinking evolved, as did that of many in the intelligence service. Panicked strategy sessions where CIA officers grasped at untried methods to speed up the intelligence cycle, under the pressure of the threat of another 9/11-style attack, gave way to the longer war. That second major attack did not materialize, and U.S. intelligence officials saw the news reports of harsh interrogation used against the U.S., fueling militant jihadist recruitment drives.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has signaled she will support Brennan’s nomination, but congressional staffers say both she and her Republican counterparts will ask Brennan to explain publicly if he objected to the interrogation program, and whether he believes it produced any useful intelligence.
Feinstein’s committee just produced a 6,000-page classified report on the interrogation program that says it did not. Congressional aides said she would seek Brennan’s support in future, if the committee votes to declassify portions of it after the White House and CIA finish reviewing the document.
Feinstein and others will also keep pressing Brennan and the White House to show them the classified legal memo that outlines specifically when drones and other lethal strikes can be employed against al-Qaida. An unclassified Justice Department White Paper was made public this week, outlining America’s authority to kill suspected terrorists with drones, even U.S. citizens, if a case can be made by the CIA or military that they are linked to al-Qaida and have taken part in plots against Americans.
AP National Security Correspondent Lara Jakes and Associated Press writer Donna Cassata contributed to this report.
Dozier can be followed on Twitter (at)kimberlydozier.