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President Obama's nomination of John Brennan as his new CIA director was taken up today by the Senate Intelligence Committee. For the last four years, Brennan has been serving as the president's chief counterterrorism adviser. In that capacity, he has directed the administration's policy of using armed drone aircraft to kill suspected al-Qaida operatives. That program, along with a variety of other controversial policies, got an airing today in Mr. Brennan's confirmation hearing, as NPR's Tom Gjelten reports.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: This administration has had its share of CIA controversies, tops among them, its extensive use of armed drones to kill suspected al-Qaida operatives. The confirmation hearing had barely gotten under way when protesters disrupted it.
After several interruptions, the committee chairman, Dianne Feinstein, gave up trying to keep order.
SENATOR DIANNE FEINSTEIN: All right. I'm going to - we're going to halt the hearing. I'm going to ask that the room be cleared.
GJELTEN: The first issue discussed at the hearing, however, was not drones but one that dated from the George W. Bush administration. The CIA during those years subjected some suspected terrorists to what were called enhanced interrogation techniques, EITs in CIA speak, torture to just about everyone else.
John Brennan worked in a fairly high position at the CIA during that time. He since said he personally objected to those practices, but the ranking Republican on the committee, Saxby Chambliss, had this question for Brennan.
SENATOR SAXBY CHAMBLISS: What steps did you take to stop CIA from moving to these techniques you now say you found objectionable at the time?
JOHN BRENNAN: I did not take steps to stop the CIA's use of those techniques. I was not in the chain of command of that program. I had expressed my personal objections about certain of those EITs such as waterboarding, nudity and others, but I did not try to stop it because it was in a different part of the agency and it was directed by the administration at the time.
GJELTEN: Interrogations came up today, in part, because the Senate Intelligence Committee recently finished a classified report, 6,000 pages long and six years in the preparation about those techniques. The conclusion: They did not produce useful information, information, for example, that led to Osama bin Laden.
Brennan has been quoted as saying lives were saved as a result of those interrogation techniques even though he objected to them. After reading the report, Brennan said, now, I don't know what the truth is.
Republicans on the committee pressed Brennan hard on leaks of classified information. He vigorously denied sharing any secrets. On the use of armed drones, the big question was not whether they are effective weapons but the conditions under which U.S. citizens might find themselves targets. Here's Democratic Senator Ron Wyden.
SENATOR RON WYDEN: What do you think needs to be done to ensure that members of the public understand when the government thinks it's allowed to kill them, particularly with respect to the question of evidence and the authority to use this power within the United States?
GJELTEN: Until last night, the Obama administration refused to share the official opinions it had on that subject. Under pressure, the administration released the memos to the intelligence committee members today, but not to their staff. For his part, John Brennan agreed that Americans do have some right to know what the government policies are regarding targeted killing.
BRENNAN: What we need to do is make sure we explain to the American people what are the thresholds for action, what are the procedures, the practices, the processes, the approvals, the reviews.
GJELTEN: Brennan chose his words carefully. He did not promise to release future legal opinions on sensitive issues. Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.