Brennan Defends Use of Drones, Says Civilian Deaths Rare

John Brennan, President Barack Obama’s nominee for CIA director, defended the use of targeted killings against members of al-Qaeda and said civilian casualties from drone strikes are “much rarer than many allege.”

In written answers to the Senate intelligence committee, which holds a hearing on his nomination today, Brennan said the Central Intelligence Agency wouldn’t use so-called enhanced interrogation techniques if he is confirmed.

“A lot of information, accurate and inaccurate, came out of interrogation sessions,” Brennan wrote in the document released yesterday. While the Justice Department said at the time that the techniques didn’t violate the law, Brennan said they were “counterproductive to our overall efforts” against al-Qaeda and other terrorists.

Brennan, 57, Obama’s counterterrorism adviser and an architect of the administration’s drone policy, will face questions today about the program, which the White House has pursued with limited oversight by Congress or the judiciary.

The 25-year veteran of the CIA acknowledged that “civilians have been killed” in drone strikes, adding that “it is exceedingly rare, and much, much rarer than many allege.” He wrote that “extraordinary care” is taken to ensure drone strikes are conducted “in full compliance with the law.”

Waterboarding Technique

Brennan performed clandestine and analytical work with the CIA and held a senior post in President George W. Bush’s administration. In 2009, he withdrew from consideration as Obama’s first CIA chief after human-rights groups and some Democrats raised concerns that he had supported the use of harsh interrogation techniques that critics consider torture, including waterboarding, which simulates drowning.

In the written answers, he said that as a senior CIA officer he was aware of the interrogation program, though he wasn’t responsible for its creation, execution or oversight. In 2007, Brennan told CBS Corp.’s “The Early Show” that the “enhanced interrogation tactics” saved lives, though waterboarding should be prohibited.

Senators have been pressing the administration to explain the legal basis for its use of drone strikes, particularly against U.S. citizens who are members of al-Qaeda.

Critics such as Marjorie Cohn, professor of human rights at the Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego, also question the administration’s interpretation of the legal conditions for a lethal drone strike.

‘Have Authority’

Brennan wrote that he doesn’t think legislation is needed because “we currently have the authority to take action in such circumstances against al-Qaeda and associated forces.”

In addition to drones, lawmakers may question Brennan about U.S. policies on launching cyber attacks and about leaks of classified information.

Republicans want explanations for newspaper stories during last year’s presidential election campaign based on anonymous administration sources that they say were meant to burnish Obama’s national security credentials. Among the reports were those disclosing the U.S. role in a cyber attack on Iran’s nuclear program and describing Obama as personally selecting the targets of drone attacks.

Brennan said in his answers to the senators that he is vigilant in protecting classified information when speaking with journalists. “In exceptional circumstances, however, it may be necessary to acknowledge classified information to a member of the media,” he said.

Disclosure Investigations

Brennan said he has been interviewed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Maryland about “possible unauthorized disclosures of information to reporters about cyber attacks against Iran.” He said he also has been questioned by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia about leaks to reporters concerning a foiled bomb plot tied to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

The idea of targeting a U.S. citizen who belongs to a group such as al-Qaeda or its affiliates may be a particular focus of debate at today’s hearing. It has been a stumbling block for Democrats who say doing so conflicts with due-process rights guaranteed in the Constitution. In 2011, a drone strike in Yemen killed Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen who had become a leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

A bipartisan group of senators, led by Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, has been pushing the administration to release the classified legal opinions used as the basis of the administration’s authority to conduct those strikes.

Obama yesterday directed the Justice Department to give the congressional intelligence committees access to the classified information, according to an administration official who asked not to be identified discussing the decision.

Actively Engaged

An unclassified Justice Department white paper obtained by NBC News this week outlines the administration’s legal arguments.

The memo said that “in defined circumstances, a targeted killing of a U.S. citizen who has joined al-Qaeda or its associated forces would be lawful under U.S. and international law.” Those circumstances include killing a U.S. al-Qaeda leader actively engaged in “planning operations to kill Americans.”

The use of lethal force is legal, the document said, if an “informed, high-level official of the U.S. government” determines the citizen poses an “imminent” threat of violent attack, if capture is “infeasible,” and if the operation can be carried out “in a manner consistent with applicable law-of-war principles.”

Some lawyers say the way the administration defines imminence doesn’t fit established international law. The white paper says that the U.S. is not required “to have clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future.”

Cohn said “the Obama administration is expanding the concept of imminence so it’s not even necessary to show there will be an attack in the near future.”

The memo “leaves extremely broad latitude for the president, the executive branch to take out anyone they want,” she said.

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