White House spokesman Jay Carney said Wednesday the White House is making "extraordinary accommodation" in allowing lawmakers to view classified Justice Department legal advice on drone strikes against Americans. Carney said the White House does not plan to send the Justice memos to lawmakers beyond those on the House and Senate intelligence committees.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., a committee member who had pressed the administration to provide the legal opinion, left open the possibility he might still try to block Brennan's nomination. But he said turning over the opinion was a good first step.
"I'm committed to making sure that we get all the facts," Wyden said on NBC's "Today" show. "Early this morning, I'm going to be going in to read the opinion. We'll go from there."
Wyden said "there are still substantial questions" about how the administration justifies and plans drone strikes. "The Founding Fathers thought the president should have significant power in the national security arena. But there have to be checks and balances," Wyden said. "You can't just skirt those checks and balances if you think it's inconvenient."
An unclassified memo leaked this week says it is legal for the government to kill U.S. citizens abroad if it believes they are senior al-Qaida leaders continually engaged in operations aimed at killing Americans, even if there is no evidence of a specific imminent attack.
Brennan laid out the administration's policy for targeting al-Qaida with lethal drone strikes ahead of the hearing, defending the use of such strikes but disavowing the harsh interrogation techniques used when he was at the CIA.
In answers to pre-hearing questions released Wednesday by the Senate Intelligence Committee, Brennan said no further legislation was necessary to conduct operations against al-Qaida wherever it's operating.
He also answered some of his critics who charged him with backing the detention and interrogation policy while he served at the CIA. Brennan said in his written answers that he was "aware of the program but did not play a role in its creation, execution, or oversight." He added that he "had significant concerns and personal objections" to the interrogation techniques and voiced those objections privately to colleagues at the agency.
Brennan went on to describe how individuals are targeted for drone strikes, saying whether a suspect is deemed an imminent threat — and therefore appropriate for targeting — is made "on a case-by-case basis through a coordinated interagency process" involving intelligence, military, diplomatic and other agencies.
Human rights and civil liberties groups have decried the methods for targeting terror suspects, especially U.S. citizens.
Brennan defended the missile strikes by unmanned Predator or Reaper drones as a more humane form of war, but he acknowledged "instances when, regrettably and despite our best efforts, civilians have been killed."
"It is exceedingly rare, and much rarer than many allege," he added.
Aides have portrayed Brennan as cautious in the use of drones, restraining others at the CIA or military who would use them more often, even though as the White House's counterterror adviser, he has presided over an explosion of drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Fewer than 50 strikes took place during the Bush administration, while more than 360 have been launched under Obama, according to the website The Long War Journal, which tracks the operations.