It's been a dramatic week for the Obama administration's drone program, and it all came to a head Thursday as John Brennan faced Congress for a lengthy public discussion.
The Senate Intelligence Committee questioned the CIA chief nominee for hours on a number of topics, from extraordinary rendition to his involvement in George W. Bush-era torture schemes. The one area they kept coming back to, though, was the secrecy surrounding the drone program he personally helped design.
Brennan dodged numerous attempts by Senators to clarify the administration's policies, however, and the main takeaway from the hearing came not from him, but from committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein. The Democratic senator said she would consider suggestions to establish an independent court to supervise and manage the executive branch's discretion when it comes to targeted killings, especially of American citizens.
According to Salon, Brennan was open to the discussion but didn't seem intent on outright supporting the measure:
"I think it's certainly worthy of discussion," he said. "Our tradition... is that a court of law is used to determine one's guilt or innocence for past actions. [but] we take actions so that we protect American lives... that is an executive branch function...
"We have wrestled with this, in terms of whether there can be a FISA-like court, but the actions that we take on the counter-terrorism front... the nature of the threat is so grave and serious, that we have no recourse."
He also acknowledged that the administration should publicly announce when drones accidentally kill innocent bystanders.
The opening moments of the hearing were interrupted several times by shouts from protestors, according to the New York Times, such as, "Assassination is against the Constitution!" Another individual held up a sign that stated, "Drones Fly Children Die."
Other questions focused on Brennan's role in the CIA during the Bush-era "enhanced interrogation programs." Brennan condemned the use of such methods, including waterboarding, but he refused to outright say that they were torture. His comments deviate from the administration's official line. President Obama himself has called waterboarding torture, as did previous CIA Director Leon Panetta.
Brennan also admitted that he had some knowledge of what the CIA was doing at the time, but that he was uninvolved in the planning and decision-making.
"I had some visibility into some of the activities there," Mr. Brennan said. "But I was not a part of any type of management structure or aware of most of the details."
Another hearing is scheduled for Tuesday, although it will be classified and not available for public viewing.