Washington: President Barack Obama’s choice to run the CIA has defended US drone strikes against al-Qaeda militants as a ‘‘last resort’’ but acknowledged the government needs to explain the covert raids better.
As the architect of the drone war, John Brennan came under tough questioning at his confirmation hearing on Thursday, as Democratic senators demanded the administration share more information about the strikes with Congress and the public.
A demonstrator disrupts the confirmation hearing of John Brennan, US President Barack Obama's nominee to be director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Photo: AFP
He came under tough questioning as Democratic senators demanded the administration share more information about the strikes with Congress and the public.
The clandestine campaign ‘‘erodes the government’s credibility with the American people’’, said Senator Mark Udall.
Pressed about the clandestine nature of the drone strikes, Mr Brennan said the government needed to speak out publicly about the ‘‘targeted killings’’ to dispel inaccurate assumptions.
A Demonstrator disrupts the confirmation hearing of John Brennan, US President Barack Obama's nominee to be director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Photo: AFP
‘‘We only take such actions as a last resort to save lives,’’ said Mr Brennan. ‘‘I think there really is a misunderstanding of what we do as a government and the care that we take and the agony that we go through to make sure that we do not have any collateral injuries or deaths.
‘‘We need to be able to go out and say that publicly and openly. I think it is critically important because people are reacting to a lot of falsehoods that are out there,’’ he said.
But he added that secrecy also had to be upheld.
Obama bows to pressure
Mr Brennan’s confirmation hearing placed a rare public spotlight on Obama’s drone campaign and associated missile strikes, involving hundreds of bombing raids by unmanned, robotic aircraft in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere.
Earlier, as Mr Brennan entered a crowded Senate hearing room, protesters began shouting "torture is always wrong" and "you are a traitor to democracy." One man yelled that "assassination is against the Constitution" as Capitol Hill police removed protesters and Senator Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, ordered the room cleared for a time.
Others in the crowd silently held up their palms, which had been painted pink. A protest sign read: "Brennan killing civilians with drones."
On the eve of the hearing, Mr Obama bowed to pressure from lawmakers and handed over a classified memo that outlines the legal justification for killing Americans abroad if they are suspected of plotting with al-Qaeda.
Some Senate Democrats and Republicans have long demanded the document and had threatened to delay confirming Brennan as the next director of the Central Intelligence Agency over the issue.
Although Brennan is expected to be approved as the new head of the CIA, some senators seized on the hearing as a chance to question him on the legality of the drone raids as well as other aspects of the open-ended war against al-Qaeda-linked militants.
Last year, the Justice Department had provided lawmakers with a summary of the secret legal opinion justifying targeting Americans, but members of the intelligence and judiciary committees had demanded the original document.
The secret memo was used as the legal basis for a controversial September 2011 drone attack in Yemen that killed the extremist cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and another target, Samir Khan.
The missile strike sparked concerns because Awlaki and Khan were US citizens who had never been charged with a crime.
Thursday's hearing provides the latest platform for Congress to air its grievances with the Obama administration's national security policy. Earlier in the day, senators questioned Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, about the response to the deadly September attacks in Benghazi, Libya.
Confirmation of Obama's nominee to next lead the Defense Department, former Senator Chuck Hagel, has been held up by Republicans who sought Panetta's testimony on Benghazi and greater detail on Hagel's speaking incomes.
Mr Brennan has deep roots in the CIA, having worked for decades in its collection, covert action and analytic units. He was a CIA station chief in Saudi Arabia and served as deputy executive director of the agency under President George W. Bush. He has conducted the daily security briefing for Obama for the past four years.
As deputy national security adviser for homeland security and counterterrorism, Mr Brennan helped plan the killing of Osama bin Laden. An expert on the Middle East, he has overseen efforts to destroy al Qaeda's affiliates in such places as Somalia and navigate the challenges of the Arab Spring uprising.
Within the US, Mr Brennan has been responsible for homeland security, boosting aviation screening and refining terrorist watch lists, and has supervised the government's response to a variety of concerns, including tornadoes, cyber threats and Hurricane Sandy.