President Barack Obama's nominee for CIA director on Thursday sought to define how he would run the agency that critics view as an overzealous intelligence service.
John Brennan testified before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence ahead of what is expected to be a smooth confirmation process. The 25-year CIA veteran and original member of Obama's national security team patiently addressed the senators' concerns about what they said is a history of the CIA stonewalling Congress.
The hearing was a sharp contrast from the highly politicized January 31 hearing for Chuck Hagel, whose confirmation for secretary of Defense remains uncertain.
Fatal drone strikes should only be used when all other options are exhausted, and enhanced interrogation techniques such as waterboarding would never occur under his tenure, Brennan said.
He referenced Code Pink protesters who interrupted his opening remarks four times, and prompted the committee chairwoman, California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, to clear the room.
"The people who stand up here today, I think they have a misunderstanding of what we do as a government," he said. Addressing reported "systematic mismanagement" of U.S. lethal drone strike will be one of his highest priorities as CIA director, Brennan said.
Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden referenced a recent white paper outlining the Obama administration's approach to legalizing targeted drone strikes against American citizens, and asked if those citizens should first be offered a chance to surrender.
Americans who join al Qaeda know "full well" they are taking on the mantle of an enemy against the United States, Brennan said.
"The United States will do whatever possible to destroy that enemy to save American lives," he said. "They have the ability to surrender at any time, anywhere throughout the world."
Waterboarding "should never have been employed," Brennan said, and it "would never be brought back" if he is confirmed as director.
He stopped short of saying waterboarding amounts to torture, opting instead to respond to Michigan Democratic Sen. Carl Levin's direct question by stating that the U.S. attorney general has said the technique is torture. The contents of a classified 6,000-page committee report on interrogation are disturbing, Brennan said. The CIA has not completed its review of the information in that report.
Brennan also stated he is unsure if accurate intelligence ever came from using these techniques.
He addressed the traditional role of the CIA, which Maryland Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski says has engaged in "mission creep" into a more traditional military role.
"I will take a look at allocations of CIA," he said in response. "The CIA should not be doing traditional military missions and operations."
In his previous written responses to the committee's questions, he said paramilitary activities are a part of the agency's history.
"The CIA, a successor to the Office of Strategic Services, has a long history of carrying out paramilitary-style intelligence activities and must continue to be able to provide the President with this option should he want to employ it to accomplish critical national security objectives," he wrote.
These criticisms of the agency include its interrogation program for captured terrorists, which Brennan said on Thursday should be the solely under the auspices of the U.S. military, the FBI, and America's allies abroad.
"Each case requires a unique and tailored response," he said, including incarcerating them at facilities such as Guantanamo Bay.
"There are many separate options, including foreign partners' detention facilities," Brennan said. "Or, put them on a naval vessel and interrogate them for an extended period of time."
The highest priority is taking these fighters "off the battlefield," he said, followed by garnering intelligence from them, then preserving information so that they can be prosecuted.