5 Questions John Brennan Dodged in His CIA Confirmation Hearing

President Obama’s nominee for CIA chief knows his way around an interrogation.


President Barack Obama with John Brennan, his nominee to lead the CIA Fang Zhe/Xinhua/ZUMAPress

The Senate intelligence committee hearing on John Brennan’s nomination to head the Central Intelligence Agency was interrupted five times by protesters before Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who chairs the committee, ordered the chamber emptied. One of the protesters, as she was being hauled off by police officers, urged members of Congress to “do your job.”

The members of the Senate intelligence committee tried. But Brennan, the White House’s top counterterrorism adviser, has spent most of his life in the US intelligence community. He knows how to dodge a direct question. Here are five key questions Brennan avoided throughout the course of the hearing:

Did torture lead to the capture of Osama bin Laden?

Feinstein began the hearing by asking whether Brennan had read the Senate intelligence committee’s recently completed investigation into coercive interrogation techniques used by the Bush administration. After Brennan said he had read the 300-page summary of the report, Feinstein asked whether torture led to the operation to kill Osama bin Laden. Brennan never actually said yes or no, simply saying that he looked “forward to hearing from the CIA on that and coming back to this committee and giving you my full and honest views.” 

Did torture work?

Under questioning by Sens. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), Brennan admitted to being undecided on whether torture worked, while saying he opposed it on moral grounds. Brennan said that while he was at the CIA, he was under the impression that torture worked, but that the Senate intelligence committee report made him question that. “I don’t know what the truth is,” Brennan said. 

Will Brennan reduce the CIA’s paramilitary role?

U.S. Air Force photo/Lt Col Leslie Pratt/Wikipedia

At the beginning of her questioning, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) noted dryly that she had been “jerked around” by every CIA director she’d known as a legislator, with the exception of Leon Panetta. Brennan assured her “truthfulness is a value that was inculcated in me in my home in New Jersey.” But when Mikulski brought up about the CIA’s increasing role in paramilitary operations, describing that as “mission creep” and asking whether Brennan would steer the Agency back towards its more traditional intelligence-gathering role, Brennan said only that he would “take a look at the allocation of that mission,” before saying that the CIA “should not be involved in traditional military activities.” But Mikulski was talking about paramilitary activities such as drone strikes. No one actually accused the CIA of engaging in “traditional military activities.”

Is waterboarding torture?

Asked whether waterboarding was torture, Brennan gave the same kind of answer Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) gave when asked the age of the Earth: He lacks the expertise to answer the question. Namely, Brennan said, he’s not a lawyer and therefore can’t say whether waterboarding is torture, because that would suggest that the CIA had committed a crime. Pressed on the fact that Attorney General Eric Holder had called waterboarding torture, Brennan alluded to the Bush-era torture memos saying that it wasn’t. “I’ve read a lot of legal opinions,” Brennan said. Despite not being a lawyer, however, Brennan has been perfectly happy to defend the administration’s targeted-killing program as legal—including in the hearing itself, when he said that Obama had insisted that the government make sure “any actions we take are legally grounded.”

Do American citizens have a right to know when they might be killed on suspicion of terrorism?

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) James Berglie/ZUMAPress

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who has led congressional efforts to compel the Obama administration to disclose more information about targeted killing, pressed Brennan on whether or not the United States was obligated to offer an American citizen suspected of joining Al Qaeda an opportunity to surrender before killing him or her. Brennan said “any member of Al Qaeda, whether it be a US citizen or non-US citizen, needs to know that they have the right to surrender anytime anywhere throughout the world, and they can do so before that organization is destroyed.” That doesn’t address the core of Wyden’s question, however. Brennan never revealed how the US determines someone has joined Al Qaeda. Brennan also never explained how someone who wasn’t actually a member of Al Qaeda might inform the US government of that fact before being killed by a Hellfire missile. “Our Constitution fortunately gives the president significant power to protect our country in dangerous times,” Wyden said, “but it is not unfettered power.”

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