CIA nominee heckled at Senate hearing

Anti-war protesters disrupt John Brennan's Senate hearing. photograph: getty

Anti-war protesters disrupt John Brennan's Senate hearing. photograph: getty

Sat, Feb 9, 2013, 00:00

Q: Just what did John Brennan know about torture under Bush?

This week saw John Brennan getting a tough ride during Senate hearings into his nomination as Barack Obama’s next director of the Central Intelligence Agency, the US civilian-based agency for information gathering, overt and covert.

Brennan, a 57-year-old Irish-American, is already a veteran of the agency having spent some 25 years there, and so congressmen and women were keen to know, as the old adage has it, “what did he know and when did he know it?” during George Bush’s war on terror.

In 2002, Brennan was deputy to the agency’s No 3 when interrogators used waterboarding – the technique of placing a wet cloth over a person’s face and pouring water on them to simulate drowning.

A trail of emails suggests that Brennan knew of the technique. He says he did not. In the eyes of most people, waterboarding amounts to torture. Brennan declined to use the term this week, reaching instead for legal niceties while accepting the practice was “reprehensible” and “something that should not be done”.

Brennan also supported the practice of “extraordinary rendition”, the policy of moving detainees whom the CIA wanted to question to secret locations in jurisdictions where legal restraints to interrogation were not observed.

In the Obama administration, Brennan has been deputy national security adviser for homeland security and counterterrorism.

His job has been to protect the US from terrorism and respond to natural disasters, in which role he has dealt with the president directly and on a daily basis. He was closely involved in the hunt for Osama bin Laden (he’s top right in that famous situation room photo of the president and his team as the navy seals killed bin Laden) and in the administration’s election-clinching response to Hurricane Sandy.

Like his current president, Brennan is a strong supporter of the use of drones – the unmanned aircraft controlled from afar and used to bomb suspects to lethal effect. Opponents question the legality and morality of drones.

This week, US media claimed to have located a hitherto unconfirmed drone base deep in the Saudi desert close to the border with Yemen.

The disclosure came as a UN report asserted that hundreds of children had been killed by drones in the past four years. The Geneva-based Committee on the Rights of the Child told the United States it was “alarmed at reports of the death of hundreds of children as a result of attacks and air strikes by the US military forces in Afghanistan”. “Drones fly, Children die!” proclaimed a poster held up by one woman as Senate intelligence committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein sought to get this week’s hearing under way. Protesters from the peace group Code Pink began shouting at Brennan: “Assassination is against the constitution!”

After the fifth interruption, Feinstein temporarily stopped the hearing. Pressed on what he knew and when regarding conflicting accounts about the CIA’s treatment of detainees, Brennan responded: “At this point, Senator, I do not know what the truth is.”