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CIA nominee Brennan defends Obama targeted killing policy

Updated at 6:26 p.m. ET: At his confirmation hearing Thursday before the Senate Intelligence Committee John Brennan, President Barack Obama’s nominee to head the Central Intelligence Agency, defended Obama’s policy of targeted killings of terrorists, saying that some Americans had a misimpression that “we take strikes to punish terrorists for past transgressions. Nothing could be further from the truth. We only take such action as a last resort to save lives when there’s no other alternative” to avert a threat to the nation.

Despite the questions about Obama’s use of targeted strikes to kill people whom the administration calls “senior operational leaders” of al-Qaida or affiliated groups, it seemed by the end of the three-and-a-half hour hearing that Brennan was certain to be confirmed. Intelligence Committee Chairman Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., called him “a fine and strong leader” and pledged her support for him. 

Alluding to some raucous protesters who had interrupted and delayed the hearing, Brennan said, “They really have a misunderstanding of what we do as a government, and the care that we take, and the agony that we go through” to ensure that innocent bystanders or civilians aren’t hit in targeted killings. “People are reacting to a lot of falsehoods that are out there.”

During his confirmation hearing to be director of the CIA, John Brennan reaffirmed his opposition to the CIA's harsh interrogation techniques, such as waterboarding, and rejected suggestions that he'd rather kill a terrorist with a drone than detain him. NBC's Andrea Mitchell reports.

Related: GOP senators assail Gen. Dempsey and Obama for response to Benghazi attack

He said, “I think the American people would be quite pleased to know that we’ve been very disciplined and very judicious” and that the Obama administration only uses targeted killings “as a last resort.”

On American citizens who become involved in al-Qaida or allied group abroad, Brennan said, “any American who joins al-Qaida will know full well that they have joined an organization that is at war with the United States” and that the U.S. government “will do everything possible to destroy that enemy to save America lives.” When Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., asked if such a person could surrender before the U.S. government killed them, Brennan said “they have the ability to surrender anytime, anywhere.”

Brennan told Wyden if a person is killed by mistake in a targeted killing, the government should acknowledge it publicly.

In answering another question from Wyden about the public’s understanding of the standards Obama uses to determine if he has enough evidence to order the killing of an American who is involved in al-Qaida terrorist plans, Brennan said, “What we need to do is optimize transparency on these issues and at the same optimize secrecy and the protection of our national security. I don’t think it’s one or the other.” He said, “We need to explain to the American people what are the thresholds for action” and what procedures the CIA and the president use to ensure that the killing are legal.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein clears the chamber during Thursday's Senate Intelligence Committee hearing do to protesters opposing the nomination of John Brennan as head of the CIA.

Thursday’s hearing was a chance for senators on the panel to ask Brennan whether Obama is using drone strikes as a less politically troublesome option than capturing detainees and putting them in Guantanamo.

“I never believe it is better to kill a terrorist than to detain him,” Brennan told Intelligence Committee ranking Republican member Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga. “We want to detain as many terrorists as possible so we can elicit the intelligence from them in the appropriate manner so that we can disrupt follow-on terrorist attacks.”

But Brennan did not reveal how many high-value al-Qaida suspects had been arrested and interrogated since Obama became president, promising Chambliss only that he’d get that information for him.

In reply, Chambliss said during Obama’s presidency that only one high-value al-Qaida suspect has been arrested and interrogated.

On the targeted killings policy, Obama directed the Department of Justice Wednesday to give the congressional intelligence committees "access to classified Office of Legal Counsel advice” related to the policy. This move came after NBC News on Monday published a Justice Department white paper giving the legal basis for the targeted killings.

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John Brennan, nominated by U.S. President Barack Obama to be the next Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee February 7, 2013 in Washington, DC.

The memo said it was lawful for the president to order people who are leaders of al-Qaida or “an associated force” killed when such people pose an imminent threat of attack against the United States and when it isn’t feasible to capture them. This is true even if they happen to be American citizens.

Brennan and other Obama administration officials say that the congressional authorization to use military force enacted after the Sept 11. 2001 attacks provide all the legal authority Obama needs to order the killing of al Qaida terrorists or those plotting attacks on the United States.

Feinstein complained to Brennan that the Justice Department has still not turned over eight Office of Legal Counsel opinions giving legal rationale for the killings. And she complained that only senators on the panel and not their staff members are allowed to read them. “The Justice Department is not yet followed through on the president’s commitment,” added Wyden.
In the opening stage of the hearing senators wanted to ask Brennan, who worked at the CIA for 25 years, about his knowledge of the enhanced interrogation techniques including waterboarding that were used by CIA operatives prior to 2008 to get information from al Qaida detainees.

“I did not take steps to stop the CIA’s use of those techniques. I was not in chain of command of that program,” Brennan told Chambliss.

“I was aware of the program – I was CC’d on some of those documents -- but I had no oversight,” he added. He also said, “I had expressed my personal objections and views to some agency colleagues” about some of the EIT methods such as waterboarding.

Brennan told Chambliss that he had the impression in 2007 that "there was valuable information coming out" from Enhanced Interrogation Techniques, but that after having read parts of a 6,000-page internal CIA review of the EIT program, he now doesn’t know if those techniques did elicit valuable information.