WASHINGTON -- In a tumultuous start to the confirmation hearing Thursday for John Brennan as CIA director, protesters briefly disrupted his testimony, and Mr. Brennan came under unexpectedly intense questioning from both Democrats and Republicans about drone strikes, leaks of classified information and his knowledge of the agency's former interrogation program.
Amid widespread controversy over the Obama administration's use of targeted killings by drones, Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said she would review proposals to create a new court to oversee such strikes. She gave no details, but said it would be analogous to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which oversees eavesdropping on U.S. soil.
Before the hearing began, a group of protesters stood up and began shouting at Mr. Brennan until they were escorted out of the hearing room. One man yelled, "Assassination is against the Constitution!" and one woman held up a sign that read "Drones Fly Children Die."
But the protests continued as Mr. Brennan began his opening statement. After the fifth interruption, Ms. Feinstein temporarily stopped the hearing and cleared the room, asking that activists from the peace group Code Pink not be readmitted.
When Mr. Brennan resumed his testimony, the committee's top Republican, Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss, pressed him on his knowledge of the CIA's use of brutal interrogation methods under then-President George W. Bush. Mr. Brennan was deputy to the agency's No. 3 official when the coercive interrogations were first used, but said he had no involvement in the program.
Mr. Chambliss sounded skeptical, saying records showed that Mr. Brennan had received 50 emails about the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, a terrorist facilitator caught in Pakistan in 2002 and subjected to waterboarding, the near-drowning technique used by CIA interrogators.
Pressed on conflicting accounts of the interrogation program, Mr. Brennan declared, "At this point, Senator, I do not know what the truth is."
Mr. Brennan on several occasions declined to describe waterboarding interrogations as "torture." He instead called them "reprehensible" and "something that should not be done." Leon Panetta, who served as President Barack Obama's first CIA director, was unequivocal during his confirmation hearing in referring to waterboarding as torture.
Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, accused Mr. Brennan of having improperly disclosed information to television commentators about a foiled Yemen terrorist plot to bomb a U.S.-bound airliner. Mr. Brennan admitted that he told the commentators that the United States had "inside control" of the operation, but denied the suggestion that he had exposed the fact that a double agent for Western intelligence was inside al-Qaida's Yemen branch. The FBI is investigating the source of that leak.
"It seems to me that the leak the Department of Justice is looking for is right here in front of us," Mr. Risch said. Mr. Brennan strenuously disagreed, saying he was a witness, not a target, of the investigation.
In his opening statement, Mr. Brennan acknowledged "widespread debate" about the administration's counterterrorism efforts. But he said the United States remained "at war with al-Qaida and its associated forces," which "still seek to carry out deadly strikes against our homeland and our citizens."
He later testified that when CIA drone strikes accidentally kill civilians, those mistakes should be made public.
The hearing came days after the leak of a Justice Department document explaining the legal rationale for killing Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen who had joined al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and was killed in Yemen in September 2011. Mr. Brennan, a former CIA station chief in Saudi Arabia, has been key to the administration's clandestine war inside Yemen.
Pressured by members of Congress in days before the hearing, the White House on Wednesday ordered the Justice Department to provide the congressional intelligence panels with the formal, classified memos that provide the legal justification for the killing of Awlaki and other U.S. citizens overseas who are considered terrorists. The Obama administration had previously refused to give lawmakers the full memos, written by the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel.
If he returns to the CIA as its director, Mr. Brennan will inherit an agency that has changed drastically in the years since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, with a new focus on hunting down terrorists that has led some to say the agency has strayed too far from its traditional mission of foreign espionage and analysis.
In his responses to Senate Intelligence Committee questions in advance of the hearing, Mr. Brennan, 57, hinted that he shared such concerns. For instance, he said the CIA's performance in anticipating and analyzing Arab world tumult since 2011 shows "that the CIA needs to improve its capabilities and its performance still further."
Mr. Brennan was first exposed to the Middle East while he was a Fordham University student and spent a year abroad at the American University of Cairo, studying Arabic. His 1980 master's thesis at the University of Texas was called "Human Rights: A Case Study of Egypt." That year, after spotting a newspaper ad recruiting for the CIA, he joined the agency.
He served as a Middle East analyst, as a briefer for then-President Bill Clinton and as station chief in Saudi Arabia from 1996 to 1999, forming relationships with Saudi officials, whom he would later consult constantly about Yemen. By the end of the 1990s, he was serving as chief of staff to the director, George Tenet, and when terrorists struck in 2001, he was deputy to the agency's third-ranking official.
He was in charge of creating the agency now called the National Counterterrorism Center, founded at the urging of the national commission on the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He left the government in 2005 for a lucrative job running an intelligence contracting firm, the Analysis Corp., that worked closely with his government security agencies.
Mr. Brennan was an early supporter of Mr. Obama in 2008, although the men did not meet until after the election. Although he was a leading candidate for CIA director, he withdrew from consideration for the post, citing what he considered to be unfair criticism from human rights advocates for his role as a senior agency official when it was using brutal interrogation methods.
In a statement released Wednesday, the American Civil Liberties Union urged the Senate to demand more details from Mr. Brennan about both the interrogation and targeted killing programs. "Brennan has been something of a Forrest Gump of toxic national security policies, having been in the room when everything from torture to the killing of an American citizen was being debated," wrote Christopher Anders, the ACLU's senior legislative counsel.
Given his wide-ranging portfolio of the past four years, Mr. Brennan's move to the CIA would narrow his responsibilities. He would have a role in the debate about whether the agency should gradually shift drone operations to the Defense Department, as many experts advise.
Mr. Panetta, who headed the CIA from 2009 to 2011 and has served as defense secretary since then, on Sunday told NBC News that he favored shifting most strikes to the military. "The advantage to it is it becomes much more transparent," he said.
Mr. Brennan would have to impose on the agency a new, formal set of rules for targeted killing that he helped write in recent months. Both CIA and Pentagon counterterrorism officials have pressed for greater freedom to hit militant suspects, and colleagues say Mr. Brennan has often been a restraining voice in the debate.nation