WASHINGTON - CIA Director-designate John Brennan strongly defended anti-terror attacks by drones Thursday under close questioning at a protest-disrupted confirmation hearing.
On a second controversial topic, he said that after years of reading classified intelligence reports, he still does not know if waterboarding has yielded useful information.
The hearing was interrupted repeatedly at its outset, and once before it had begun. Eventually, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., ordered the proceedings halted and the room cleared so those re-entering could be screened for obvious protesters.
Despite what he called a public misimpression, Brennan told the committee that drone strikes are used only against targets planning to carry out attacks against the United States, never as retribution for an earlier one.
"Nothing could be further from the truth," he declared.
Referring to one American citizen killed by a drone in Yemen in 2011, he said the man, Anwar al-Awlaki, had ties to at least three attacks planned or carried out on U.S. soil. They included the Fort Hood, Texas, shooting that claimed 13 lives in 2009, a failed attempt to down a Detroit-bound airliner the same year and a thwarted plot to bomb cargo planes in 2010.
"He was intimately involved in activities to kill innocent men women and children, mostly Americans," Brennan said.
In a sign that the hearing had focused intense scrutiny on the drone program, Feinstein told reporters after the hearing that she thinks it may be time to lift the secrecy from the program so U.S. officials can acknowledge the strikes and correct what she said were exaggerated reports of civilian casualties.
She said she and other senators are considering writing legislation to set up a special court system to regulate drone strikes, similar to the one that signs off on government surveillance in espionage and terror cases.
Speaking with uncharacteristic openness about the classified program, Feinstein said the CIA had allowed her staff to make more than 30 visits to the CIA's Langley, Va., headquarters to monitor strikes, but that the transparency needed to be widened.
"I think the process set up internally is a solid process," Feinstein said, but added: "I think there's an absence of knowing exactly who is responsible for what decision. So I think we need to look at this whole process and figure a way to make it transparent and identifiable."
In a long afternoon in the witness chair, Brennan declined to say if he believes waterboarding amounts to torture, but he said firmly it is "something that is reprehensible and should never be done again."
Brennan, 57, President Obama's top anti-terrorism aide, won praise from several members of the committee, a clear indication that 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.