WASHINGTON — President Obama's nominee to be CIA director faced a grilling at his Senate confirmation hearing Thursday about a decade of CIA mistakes and misdeeds, from abuse of detainees to leaks of classified information.
The highly unusual public hearing cast a rare spotlight on a spy agency that operates in the shadows. Senators from both parties took turns pushing John Brennan for his views of covert programs that have garnered headlines, including the administration's expanded use of targeted killings by drone aircraft, a highly classified effort he helped design and oversee as White House counter-terrorism chief.
Brennan's confirmation is all but assured. But the sharp questions reflected deep frustration on the part of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which has battled the Obama administration over access to classified documents, and which has not held a single public hearing on CIA drone strikes that have killed an estimated 3,000 suspected militants in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia in the last four years.
"Every American has the right to know when their government believes it's allowed to kill them," Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) told Brennan.
Brennan said any Al Qaeda operatives, including U.S. citizens, "have a right to surrender." The high-flying CIA drones offer no such opportunity, however.
If confirmed, Brennan will take over a fabled spy service facing a budget downturn after a decade of increases, and intelligence challenges including Iran, North Korea, nuclear proliferation and cyber-espionage.
Most of Thursday's session focused instead on pent-up grievances from the past. Senators cited CIA mistakes before the 2001 terrorist attacks, faulty CIA warnings on Iraq's purported weapons of mass destruction, the secret "rendition" of terrorism suspects to countries that practice torture, and other controversies.
In particular, Brennan was pressed about his involvement in the harsh interrogation of Al Qaeda suspects during the George W. Bush administration. Criticism over alleged torture of detainees had forced Brennan to withdraw his name from consideration as CIA director four years ago.
On Thursday, Brennan called waterboarding of CIA detainees "reprehensible," and said simulated drowning in CIA interrogations should be banned, but he declined to call it torture.
When such harsh interrogations began in 2002, Brennan was the CIA's deputy executive director. He received about 50 messages involving the program before it ended in 2003, senators said.
"I was cc'd on some of those documents, but I had no oversight of it," he said. "I professed my personal objections to it, but I did not try to stop it because it was something that was being done in a different part of the agency."
Brennan also said he had revised his earlier view that what the CIA called "enhanced interrogation techniques," including nudity and stress positions, at now-shuttered secret prisons around the globe had produced valuable intelligence. He said a 300-page summary of a recently completed 6,000-page classified report by committee Democrats was "rather damning."
If confirmed as CIA chief, Brennan promised to find out "what went wrong in the system, where there were systemic failures, where there was mismanagement in the system." He added it would be "one of my highest priorities."
Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) said the interrogation program was "corrupted by personnel with pecuniary conflicts of interest." He did not elaborate.
The CIA has yet to formally respond to the report and it's unclear if some portions will be made public.
The 3 1/2-hour hearing will be followed by a closed-door session Tuesday. It came a day after Obama abruptly reversed course and agreed to let the House and Senate intelligence committees review secret Justice Department memos and opinions used to justify the targeting of Anwar Awlaki, a U.S. citizen and Al Qaeda member who was killed in a CIA drone strike in Yemen in September 2011.
The committee chairwoman, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), complained to Brennan that senators could not bring staff experts and lawyers to examine the documents, and said the White House had withheld eight opinions that the committee had requested.
Republicans largely focused on whether the CIA should be capturing more terrorists, rather than just killing them. They also questioned whether Brennan had disclosed classified information in meetings that the White House arranged with reporters and former U.S. counter-terrorism officials.
He "vehemently" denied any misconduct, and said he had volunteered to help federal prosecutors investigating several alleged leaks.
"Unfortunately, there was a hemorrhaging of information and leaks," he said.
Brennan entered the hearing room to shouted protests from members of Code Pink, a group that opposes drone strikes. Protesters interrupted his opening statement until Feinstein asked police to clear the hearing room of all but Capitol Hill staffers and reporters.
Feinstein led the Democrats' charge on lethal drone strikes. Even though the committee had confirmed that the number of civilians inadvertently killed each year "has typically been in the single digits," she said, she has not been permitted to discuss it.
"When I asked to give out the actual numbers, I'm told, 'You can't,'" she said. "And I say, 'Why not?' 'Because it's classified. It's a covert program. For the public, it doesn't exist.'"
That rationale, she added, "is long gone."
Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) urged Brennan to consider asking an independent court to review drone-targeting decisions, just as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court reviews secret intelligence eavesdropping warrants.
"Having the executive be the judge, prosecutor and the jury all in one is very contrary to the laws of this country," King said.
Brennan said the idea was "worthy of discussion," but he wondered whether courts could evaluate decisions to stop terrorists before they acted.
After the hearing, Feinstein also lent support to the notion of allowing judicial review, even by a secret court, of the drone attacks. "I think this has gone about as far as it can go as a covert activity," she said.