Transcript: Sen. Ron Wyden’s Q&A on the nomination of John Brennan as CIA Director

Transcribed & edited by Jenny Jiang

Partial transcript of Sen. Ron Wyden’s Q&A on the nomination of White House Counter-Terrorism Adviser John Brennan as the next CIA Director. The Senate Intelligence Committee hearing was held on Feb. 7, 2013:

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.):
…Taking the fight to Al Qaeda is something that every member of this committee feels strongly about. It’s the idea of giving any President unfettered power to kill an American without checks and balances that’s so troubling.

Every American has the right to know when their government believes it’s allowed to kill them and ensuring that the Congress has the documents and information it needs to conduct robust oversights is central to our democracy.

In fact, the committee was actually created in large part to lax oversight of programs that involved targeted killings. So it was encouraging last night when the President called and indicated that effective immediately he would release the documents necessary for Senators to understand the full legal analysis of the President’s authority to conduct the targeted killing of an American. What the President said is a good first step toward ensuring the openness and accountability that’s important and you heard that in the Chair’s strong words right now…

Let me now move to the public side of oversight, making sure that the public’s right to know is respected. One part oversight is Congressional oversight – our doing our work here – the other is making sure that the American people are brought into these debates, just like like what James Madison said – this is what you need to preserve a Republic.

I want to start with the drone issue. In a speech last year, the President instructed you to be more open with the public about the use of drones to conduct targeted killings of Al Qaeda members. So my question is what should be done next to ensure that public conversation about drones so that the American people are brought into this debate and have a full understanding of what rules the government can observe when it conducts targeted killings?

John Brennan:
Well, I think this hearing is one of the things that can be done because I think this type of discourse between the executive and legislative branches is critically important. I believe there need to be continued speeches that are going to be given by the executive branch to explain our counter-terrorism programs.

I think there’s a mis-impression on the part of some American people who believe that we take strikes to punish terrorists for past transgressions. Nothing could be further from the truth. We only take such actions as a last resort to save lives when there is no other alternative to taking an action that’s going to mitigate that threat.

So we need to make sure that there’s understanding, and the people that were standing up here today, I think they really have a misunderstanding of what we do as a government and the care that we take and the agony that we go through to make sure that we do not have any collateral injuries or deaths.

As the Chairman said earlier, the need to go out to say that publicly and openly, I think, is critically important because people are reacting to a lot of falsehoods that are out there. And I do see it as part of my obligation and I think it’s the obligation of this committee to make sure that the truth is known to the American public and to the world.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.):
Mr. Brennan, I’m also convinced that there are parts of drone policy that can be de-classified consistent with national security, and I hope you will work with me on that if you’re confirmed.

Let me ask you several other questions with respect to the President’s authority to kill Americans. I’d ask you how much evidence the President needs to decide that a particular American can be lawfully killed and whether the administration believes that the President can use his authority inside the United States. In my judgement, both the Congress and the public need to understand the answers to these kind of fundamental questions. What do you think needs to be done to ensure that members of the public understand more about when the government thinks it’s allowed to kill them, particularly with respect to those two issues, questions about evidence and the authority to use this
power within the United States?

John Brennan:
I have been a strong proponent of trying to be as open as possible with these programs as far as our explaining what we’re doing. What we need to do is optimize transparency in these issues but at the same time optimize secrecy and the protection of national security. I don’t think that it’s one or the other. It’s trying to optimize both of them. And so what we need to do is explain to the American people what are the thresholds for actions, what are the procedures, the practices, the processes, the approvals, the reviews.

The Office of Legal Counsel’s advice establishes the legal boundaries within which we can operate. It doesn’t mean that we at those out of boundaries. And in fact, I think the American people would be quite pleased to know we’ve been very disciplined, very judicious, and we only use these authorities and these capabilities as a last resort.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.):
One other point with respect to public oversight, if the executive branch makes a mistake and kills the wrong person or a group of the wrong people, how should the government acknowledge that?

John Brennan:
I believe we need to acknowledge it. I believe we need to acknowledge it to our foreign partners. We need to acknowledge it publicly. There are certain circumstances where there are considerations to be taken into account. But as far as I’m concerned, if there is this type of action that takes place, in the interest of transparency, I believe the United States government should acknowledge it.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.):
And acknowledge it publicly?

John Brennan:
That would be the ideal and that would be the objective of the program.

Second Round Q&A:

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.):
We have talked for several hours now about the question of targeted killings of Americans. You’ve heard it from a number of Senators. And I’d like to get your reactions on one point in particular, and that is this question particularly in the context that you’ve given – that you try to focus in areas where the evidence is substantial, the threat is imminent, where there is a particularly persuasive case that the targeted killing of an American is warranted. In that kind of case, do you believe that the President should provide an individual American with the opportunity to surrender before killing him?

John Brennan:
Senator, I haven’t spoken about any specific operation…

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.):
I’m talking about the concept because you talked about the concept. Imminent threats, serious evidence, grave concern, and certainly words that strike a chord with me. And that’s why I’d be interested in your thoughts on whether in those kinds of instances the President ought to give individual American the opportunity to surrender.

John Brennan:
Right. I think in those instances, and right now let’s use the example of Al Qaeda. Because if an American were to join Al Qaeda, we have routinely said openly, publicly, repeatedly that we’re at war with Al Qaeda. We repeatedly have said that Al Qaeda is in fact trying to kill Americans and that we are going to do everything possible to protect the lives of American citizens from these murderous attacks from Al Qaeda. We have signaled this worldwide. We repeatedly have said it openly and publicly. Any American who joins Al Qaeda will know full well that they have joined an organization that is at war with the United States and that has killed thousands upon thousands of individuals – many, many of them who are Americans. So I think any American who did that should know well that they, in fact, are part of an enemy against us and that the United States will do everything possible to destroy that enemy to save American lives.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.):
And I certainly, and I’ve said this at the very beginning – I certainly want to be part of that effort to fight Al Qaeda on all of these key fronts. I just want to have some answers, and I’ll give you another chance – whether you think the President should give an individual American the opportunity to surrender…

What it really goes to, Mr. Brennan, is this question of checks and balances…I think that’s really what this is all about. Our constitution, fortunately, gives…the President significant power to protect our country in dangerous times. But it is not unfettered power. It’s power that’s balanced through this special system that ensures Congressional oversight and public oversight…

John Brennan:
First of all, any member of Al Qaeda – whether it be a U.S. citizen or a non-U.S. citizen – needs to know that they have the ability to surrender – the right to surrender – anytime, anywhere throughout the world, and they can do so before their organization is destroyed. We will destroy that organization and, again, out there in Al Qaeda – U.S. citizens and others – they can surrender anytime, turn themselves in…

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.):
Just on that point, I don’t take a back seat to anybody in terms of fighting Al Qaeda. That was why I came out with it right at the outset. But I asked you a different question and on the question of what kind of evidence ought to be applied, whether there ought to be geographic limits, the question of whether an individual should be allowed to surrender. For example, there’s also the question of whether the obligation changes if, you know, a valid target has not been publicly reported. So there are issues, you know, here…

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