Protesters denouncing US drone attacks disrupted a US Senate hearing on Thursday on the nomination for the next CIA director, forcing police to escort demonstrators from the hall.
“Stand up against drones” yelled a protester as President Barack Obama’s pick to lead the CIA, John Brennan, was repeatedly interrupted as he tried to deliver his opening remarks to the Senate Intelligence Committee.
After five instances of protesters disrupting proceedings, the chairman of the panel, Dianne Feinstein, ordered police to clear the room and to bar the return of protesters from the anti-war “Code Pink” activist group.
Brennan is widely seen as the architect of the large-scale covert drone war against al-Qaeda, which Obama and his aides have declined to discuss openly.
One demonstrator held up a hand-made sign that read: “Brennan drone killing.” Another shouted at Senator Feinstein: “Are your children more important than the children of Pakistan?”
The “targeted killings” against suspected al-Qaeda militants in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere have been condemned by human rights groups as an illegal clandestine war.
But most lawmakers support the campaign as an effective way to counter al-Qaeda extremists without deploying troops on major military operations.
In a written submission posted on the Senate Intelligence Committee’s website on Wednesday, Brennan acknowledged for the first time that he had given voluntary interviews in connection with investigations into leaks that are being conducted by federal prosecutors in Baltimore and Washington.
Brennan said the investigations related to cyber warfare against Iran and a foiled bomb plot tied to al-Qaeda’s Yemen-based affiliate. Brennan said his lawyer had been told by prosecutors that he was “only a witness” in both investigations.
However, leaks are only one of the major issues about which intelligence committee members plan to question Brennan, a former CIA executive under president George W Bush, who has become the steward of Obama’s drone policies.
Congressional aides said much of the questioning is expected to focus on what Brennan knew about the Bush administration’s use of harsh interrogation techniques on Islamic militant suspects captured and held, sometimes in secret CIA prisons, after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
Human rights activists and many US politicians, including intelligence committee chairwoman Senator Dianne Feinstein and Republican Senator John McCain, have condemned some of the interrogation techniques as torture.
Democrats also are expected to question Brennan, the top White House adviser on counter-terrorism and homeland security, on the Obama administration’s use of armed drone aircraft to attack suspected al-Qaeda militants and encampments in countries including Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen.
Despite the range of expected questions, Senate aides and political handicappers say they have not sensed a groundswell of opposition to Brennan’s nomination.
Brennan first surfaced as an Obama CIA nominee in 2008 but he withdrew after human rights activists protested his equivocal public statements regarding the agency’s use of “enhanced interrogation” techniques, including the simulated drowning practice known as “waterboarding”.
This time human rights groups have raised questions about Brennan, but opposition has come nowhere close to the level mounted by conservative and pro-Israel groups against Chuck Hagel, Obama’s nominee to replace Leon Panetta at the Pentagon.
Brennan’s knowledge of waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques is likely to provoke intense committee questioning.
As Reuters reported earlier this month based on sources, classified CIA message traffic shows that Brennan had detailed, contemporaneous knowledge of the CIA’s use of “enhanced interrogation techniques”, including waterboarding.
After he temporarily left government service in 2005, Brennan publicly renounced waterboarding and other physically painful interrogation techniques. He and Obama administration officials have also said that Brennan had objected privately to fellow intelligence officers about the techniques’ use.
Former Bush administration officials involved in the program say they do not recall such objections.
In his written submissions to the intelligence committee, Brennan declared that he had “significant concerns and personal objections to many elements of the EIT (enhanced interrogation technique)” programme while it was under way.
“I voiced those objections privately with colleagues at the agency,” Brennan continued, adding: “When I left the agency, I spoke publicly about those concerns.”
He maintained that after being named White House counter-terrorism adviser, “I was put in a position to influence decisions related to EITS, such as how we handle interrogations, and I strongly support the president’s ban on such techniques”.
The CIA, which under Bush ran a network of secret prisons overseas where many of the so-called enhanced interrogations were conducted, was now “out of the detention business and it should stay that way”.
Questions about drones are expected after the leak this week of an unclassified Justice Department paper outlining Obama administration legal justifications for using armed drones to attack US citizens alleged to be involved in terrorist plots.
In his written submissions to the panel, Brennan said drone strikes were targeted “against specific al-Qaeda terrorists in order to prevent terrorist attacks on the United States and to save American lives”. He insisted those attacks were conducted “in full compliance with the law”.
He said drone strikes hit their targets with “astonishing precision” and therefore “dramatically reduce the danger to US personnel and innocent civilians”.
Brennan is also likely to face questions about the news leaks, which are under federal investigation, although a congressional source said no evidence has emerged yet that Brennan played a role in some of the leaks.
The US attorney in Baltimore is examining leaks about the alleged role of US agencies in cyber-warfare activities against Iran, including deployment of a virus known as Stuxnet.
The US attorney in Washington is looking into leaks which led to the premature end of an undercover operation to infiltrate al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the militant network’s Yemen-based affiliate.
The Associated Press first reported last May that the US had disrupted a plot to bomb an airliner with a newly designed “underwear bomb”.
Brennan subsequently advised former US counter-terrorism officials who are TV news pundits that the plot was never a serious threat because the US had “inside control”.
This led to a statement by one TV pundit that the United States apparently had “somebody on the inside” of the plot. Reuters later learned that British intelligence agencies helped to plant an informant in AQAP, and that their operation, in which Saudi and US agencies also co-operated, had to be wound up prematurely because of leaks.