By Pam Benson
John Brennan came well-prepared Thursday and held his own during questioning at his Senate confirmation hearing to become the 21st director of the Central Intelligence Agency. It was in stark contrast to what was considered by many as an ill-prepared, lethargic performance by defense secretary nominee Chuck Hagel at his confirmation hearing last week.
Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee mostly grilled Brennan about his knowledge of the CIA's controversial interrogation and detention program and the lethal targeting of suspected terrorists. Republicans tended to focus on leaks of secret information about counterterrorism activities.
While on one hand Brennan was forceful with his answers, on the other he seemed very careful with his choice of words.
Here are five things we learned from the hearing:
1. Doubts on harsh interrogations
Brennan had said in the past that although he opposed some of the harsh interrogation techniques that were used on suspected terrorists during the George W. Bush administration, CIA reports that he had seen when he was a senior official at the agency indicated valuable information came from the use of those techniques and had saved lives. But he now has doubts after reading the 300-page summary of a recently completed intelligence committee report on the interrogation and detention program. Brennan told the senators a number of things in the Senate report were "very concerning and disturbing" to him.
The 6,000 page report was based on mostly CIA documents, however. No CIA officers past or present were interviewed for the report.
Brennan said he would have to wait for the CIA to complete its review of the report before he drew any final conclusions. "Now I have to determine what the truth is. I do not know what the truth is," Brennan told the committee.
Brennan was asked by Sen. Saxby Chambliss, ranking Republican on the committee, why he didn't try to stop the interrogations if he objected to them. He responded that he was aware of the program and personally objected to parts of it, but didn't take action to stop it because his job as deputy executive director did not put him "in the chain of command" for the program.
2. The agony of targeted killing
Brennan told the committee that the use of targeted killing against suspected al Qaeda terrorists overseas who pose an imminent threat to the United States is only used as a last resort. He said the United States does not conduct strikes "to punish terrorists for past transgressions." Brennan agreed the public has a misunderstanding of what the government is doing and doesn't realize "the care that we take and the agony that we go through to make sure that we do not have any collateral injuries or deaths."
3. Get ready for more droning on drones
For the first time the public heard an open discussion about the secret targeted killing program with Brennan defending the adminstration’s approach.
Brennan agreed with Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, that Americans need to have a full understanding of government rules involving the use of armed drones to conduct targeted killings against American citizens overseas who are considered senior operational leaders of al Qaeda or one of its affiliates. "I have been a strong proponent of trying to be as open as possible with these programs as far as our explaining what we're doing," Brennan said. "So what we need to do is make sure we explain to the American people what the thresholds for action, what are the procedures, the practices, the processes, the approvals, the reviews." He suggested this hearing was a good start and advocated for more speeches by the executive branch to explain its counterterrorism efforts.
4. Authorized leaks are an oxymoron
Last year, Republicans accused the Obama administration of intentionally leaking information about successful secret counterterrorism operations to make the president look good in an election year. At the hearing on Thursday, some GOP senators hammered away at Brennan about one of those leaks - a thwarted al Qaeda bomb plot in Yemen that involved a mole. Sen. Dan Coats, R-Indiana, wanted to know whether it was possible to put out an authorized leak. Brennan gave an emphatic no and said that would be an "oxymoron." The information would have to be declassified to be disclosed, said Brennan "and done in a proper way."
Brennan took exception to the charge he was responsible for the Yemen leak, which is being investigated by the Justice Department.
When Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, bluntly said, "it seems to me that the leak that (the) Justice Department is looking for is right here in front of us," Brennan said he "vehemently disagreed." He added he voluntarily was interviewed by prosecutors and was told he is considered a witness and not a suspect.
5. Trust of CIA directors
It appears Brennan might be looked upon more highly then some of his predecessors if he is confirmed as CIA director - at least in the eyes of some senators.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Maryland, complained about being "jerked around" around by just about all of the CIA directors she has been associated with over the past 10 years. She asked Brennan for his word that he would be forthcoming and speak truth to power, something Brennan promised to do.
But Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-West Virginia, had no doubts about his trust in Brennan. He said in his 28 years in the Senate, he couldn't recall "anybody who was more forthright, more direct, more accommodating" and willing to work with the committee. The chairwoman of the committee, Sen. Dianne Feinstein seconded her colleague's comments and added, "you really didn't hedge."
Coats complimented Brennan for giving straight answers, being blunt and candid.