Brennan Hearing Shows a Restless Congress on Drones and Terrorism

On drones, Brennan insisted that the president always acts legally—as defined by his own lawyers, that is—when ordering strikes against suspected terrorists.

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Jason Reed/REUTERS

Deputy National Security Adviser John Brennan testifies before a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on his nomination to be the Director of the CIA, on Capitol Hill in Washington, February 7, 2013.

As you might expect from a public hearing about the activities of the CIA, John Brennan’s Senate confirmation hearing on Thursday was not exactly a font of detailed information about America’s intelligence and counter-terror operations. In an afternoon when he maintained a tough resolve against occasionally testy Senate questioners—Chuck Hagel could learn a few things from this guy!—Brennan revealed virtually nothing new about drones, torture or the war on al Qaeda.

On drones, Brennan insisted that the president always acts legally—as defined by his own lawyers, that is—when ordering strikes against suspected terrorists. But he also told members of the Senate Intelligence Committee that he hoped Americans understood “the care we take, the agony we go through, to make sure we do not have any collateral injuries and deaths.”

On torture, Brennan acknowledged that he was aware of the practice while he was a senior CIA executive in the ‘00s, and that he left the agency believing it could yield useful information, although he opposed it. Yesterday Brennan said he’s now unsure, after reading the summary of a 6,000 page classified report recently produced by the Intelligence Committee, whether torture produce information that saved lives or led to the capture of Osama bin Laden. “At this point, Senator, I do not know what the truth is,” Brennan said.

But the word “torture” can mean different things to different people. And Brennan would not say whether his definition specifically includes the notorious practice of waterboarding, which he called “reprehensible and it is something that should not be done.” “I’m not a lawyer,” Brennan added.

As interesting as Brennan’s cautious, though generally effective, responses were the questions from his interrogators. Congress has generally played a hands-off role on counter-terrorism policy under Barack Obama. But several members of the Intelligence Committee seemed frustrated with various aspects of the ongoing campaign against al Qaeda. Democrats Diane Feinstein and Ron Wyden complained that the Obama administration had been too secretive about the drone program’s very existence, and Wyden pressed his case that the White House should more clearly explain to the public its legal rationale for killing a U.S. citizen believed to be aligned with al Qaeda. Republicans pressed Brennan on whether the Obama administration might be killing terrorists without trying in earnest to capture them because of newly limited interrogation and detention policies.

In one of the hearing’s most interesting exchanges, Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine drew back further, asking Brennan whether some basic assumptions about the fight against al Qaeda should be challenged. Noting that the terror group continues to spread, Collins asked, “If the cancer of al Qaeda is metastasizing, do we need a new treatment?” Collins noted that even an experienced military official like former General Stanley McChrystal have begun wondering aloud whether America has become too reliant on drones, at the expense of breeding resentment and backlash within the Muslim world. (You can read about that and related issues in TIME’s recent drones cover story.)

“We have to be very mindful” of local reactions to drone strikes, Brennan answered. But he insisted that people in al Qaeda-infested areas have “welcomed” American strikes on terrorist leaders. It was another cautious and not terribly revealing answer. But Brennan’s response may have been less significant than the concern expressed by a senior Senator—a Republican no less—about America’s drone war. The Brennan hearing may have shed little light on Obama’s likely next CIA director. But it might have been a sign that, when it comes to our long counter-terror campaign, a long-acquiescent Congress is finally getting restless.