Brennan Interrupted by Protesters, Defends Drone Strikes at Hearing

Obama's CIA nominee talks about targeted killing

ByABC News
February 7, 2013, 3:04 PM

Feb. 7, 2013 -- John Brennan couldn't get a word in at first. When he did finally did, he defended the Obama administration's controversial drone program.

As his confirmation hearing got under way before the Senate Intelligence Committee today, President Obama's nominee to lead the CIA was confronted by protesters for his role in overseeing the classified drone program that targets terrorists, including U.S. citizens.

But the hearing was shut down for a few minutes after protesters -- apparently hailing from the war-protest group Code Pink -- interrupted the proceedings five times. They rose, one by one, to interrupt Brennan as he began his testimony, then stopped him four more times, or every time he resumed speaking.

Read more: Brennan: Drone Strikes Only Used for Major Threats

Brennan, 57, is the chief counterterrorism adviser to the president.

Before the hearing began, one protester held up hands ostensibly covered in blood. One shouted at Brennan, "You are a traitor to democracy."

After Brennan began speaking, one protester rose, holding a sign that read, "Brennan = Drone Killing." As Brennan continued, more protesters stood and shouted about the U.S. drone program overseas.

Read more: Brennan: Al Qaeda Remains Focused on Planes

The same group protested against former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice when she testified before Congress in 2007. A member held fake-bloodied hands in her face, yelling "war criminal."

Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., the committee chairwoman, ordered all hearing observers to leave the room and be readmitted. Code Pink members, all seated in the same row, were removed.

Brennan's hearing came at a controversial time for the U.S. intelligence community. It was revealed this week that a secret White House memo authorized the killing of U.S. citizens abroad. Obama will make that memo available to members of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Read more: Senate Panel Postpones Vote on Hagel

Feinstein defended drone strikes as the hearing began, lamenting that she was unable to publicize the administration's classified figures on collateral civilian deaths resulting from drone strikes.

"The figures we have obtained from the executive branch, which we have done our utmost to verify, confirm the civilian casualties that result from these strikes each year have typically been in the single digits," Feinstein said.

Once the hearing got under way, Brennan defended America's drone program while calling for greater transparency.

"I believe there are people who believe we take strikes to punish terrorists for past transgressions. Nothing could be further from the truth," Brennan said. "The people who are standing up here today, I think, have a misunderstanding of what we do as a government."

Read more: Dodging 'Torture,' Brennan Calls Waterboarding 'Reprehensible'

Brennan echoed Feinstein's point that classified numbers could help the administration make a public case for drone strikes.

"The need to be able to go out and say that publicly and openly, I think, is critically important, because people are reacting to a lot of falsehoods that are out there," Brennan said.

Pressed by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Brennan also said the U.S. government should publicly acknowledge drone strikes when they happen.

"In the interest of transparency, I believe the U.S. government should acknowledge it," Brennan said.

Read more: U.S. Launched Deadly Drone Strike From Saudi Arabia: Reports

On the controversial topic of killing American citizens, Brennan again defended the administration. With news of the memo justifying such action, the 2011 killing in Yemen of American al Qaeda operative Anwar al Awlaki has attained renewed controversy.