Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Nominee for CIA director grilled

Brennan defends Obama's drone strikes

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WASHINGTON -- Nominated to head the CIA, John Brennan told a protest-disrupted Senate confirmation hearing Thursday the United States employs drone strikes only as a deterrent against imminent terrorist threats, not as punishment for previous attacks, firmly defending the controversial attacks that have targeted Americans as well as foreigners overseas.

"Nothing could be further from the truth," he said of the idea that the U.S. uses the strikes by unmanned aircraft as retaliation.

On another thorny topic, under sometimes-combative questioning from senators, he conceded that after years of intelligence work, he is uncertain whether the use of waterboarding in interrogations has yielded valuable information. He declined several times to say whether waterboarding is torture, but he did say it is "something that is reprehensible and should never be done again."

Brennan, 57, and U.S. 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. The panel will meet in closed session next week to permit discussion of classified material.

In hours of questioning from the Senate intelligence committee, Brennan made repeated general pledges to increase the flow of information to members of the 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 Central Intelligence Agency has used lethal authority, he replied, "It would be my intention to do everything possible" to comply.

At another point, he said he had no second thoughts about having opposed a planned strike against Osama bin Laden in 1998, a few months before the bombing of two U.S. embassies. The plan was not "well-grounded," he said, adding other intelligence officials also recommended against proceeding. Brennan was at the CIA at the time.

Brennan is a veteran of more than three decades in intelligence work and is currently serving as Obama's top counterterrorism adviser in the White House.

In a statement at the beginning of Thursday's session, Brennan said the United States remains at war with al-Qaida and other terrorists and is under "daily cyberattack" by foreign countries and others.

He said historic transformations continue sweeping through the Middle East and North Africa, with "major implications for our interests, Israel's security, our Arab partners and the prospects for peace and stability throughout the region."

Additionally, he said Iran and North Korea "remain bent on pursuing nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missile delivery systems."

The hearing was interrupted repeatedly, once before it began and then several times before Brennan had completed his preliminary remarks.

At one point, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat and the panel's chairwoman, briefly ordered the proceedings halted and the room cleared so those re-entering could be screened to block obvious protesters.

The shouted protests centred on CIA drone strikes that have killed three American citizens and an unknown number of foreigners overseas.

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 8, 2013 A13

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