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

Transcribed & edited by Jenny Jiang

Partial transcript of Sen. Susan Collins’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. Susan Collins (R-Maine):
I want to follow up on an issue that several of my colleagues have raised on the issue of capturing a terrorist versus targeted killing of a terrorist. In a recent speech that you gave at the Wilson Center, you said “Our unqualified preference is to only undertake lethal force when we believe that capturing the individual is not feasible.” Yet, a study by the New American Foundation as well as numerous press reports indicate that in the first 2 years of President Obama’s administration, there were 4 times the number of targeted killings than in 8 years of President Bush’s administration. Is your testimony today that the huge increase in the number of lethal strikes has no connection to the change in the Obama administration’s detention policy? Because obviously, if we’re capturing the terrorists, we’d have the opportunity to interrogate that individual and perhaps learn of ongoing plots. But if the strike is done, that opportunity is lost. Are you saying today that it is totally unconnected to the Obama administration’s shift in its detainee policy?

John Brennan:
I can say unequivocally, Senator, that there’s not been an occasion I’m aware of where we had the opportunity to capture a terrorist and we didn’t and we decided to take a lethal strike. So that certainly, there’s no correlation there as far as any type of termination of the CIA’s detention interrogation program and that increase in strikes.

Now, I will say that if you look at over the last 4 years what happened in a number of places, such as Yemen and other areas, where there was in fact a growth of Al Qaeda quite unfortunately, and so what we were trying to do in this administration is to take every measure possible to protect the lives of our citizens whether it be abroad or in the United States as well as a maturation of capabilities and insight into those intelligence plots as a result of the investment that was made in the previous administration that allowed us in this administration to take appropriate actions.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine):
Well, let’s talk further about the targeted killings. When the targeted killings began several years ago, the first order of fact of these operations was the elimination of the senior operational leadership of Al Qaeda, of many of the leaders – many of the core leaders. Obviously, that is a critical priority. We have heard both former CIA Director Michael Hayden in an interview on CNN and Gen. [Stanley] McChrystal say that it is now changed and that the impact of those strikes is creating a backlash.

For example, Gen. McChrystal said the resentment created by American use of unmanned strikes is much greater than the average American appreciates; they’re hated on a visceral level even by people who’s never seen one or seen the effects of one. He added that the targeted killings by remotely piloted aircraft add to the perception of American arrogance that says “Well, we can fly where we want. We can shoot where we want because we can.”

And…Hayden also has expressed concerns that now that the strikes are being used at lower levels arguably that they are creating a backlash that is undermining the credibility of governments and creating new terrorists when a neighbor or family member’s killed in the course of the operations.

Do you agree with Gen. McChrystal and Director Hayden about the potential backlash from the strikes, from the targeted killings at this point? I’m not talking about the initial strikes.

John Brennan:
I think that it is something that we have to be very mindful of in terms of what the reaction is to any type of U.S. counter-terrorism activities that involve the dropping of ordinance anywhere in the world, absolutely. Whether it’s a remotely piloted aircraft or whether it’s a manned aircraft, I think we have to take that into account. But I would not agree with some of the statements that you had quoted there because what we, in fact, have found in many areas is that the people are being held hostage to Al Qaeda in these areas and have welcomed the work that the U.S. government has done with their governments to rid them of the Al Qaeda cancer that exists.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine):
Finally, today, this committee received the OLC memos describing the legal justification that many of us, particularly those who’ve been on the committee far longer than I, have been seeking for sometime. And I too spent a large part of this morning reading them. Yet the Obama administration within months of taking office released several OLC memos describing the legal justification for the treatment of terrorist detainees that were held in U.S. custody. Do you think that it was appropriate that a different standard was applied to the release of the memos from the Bush administration than those produced by the Obama administration?

John Brennan:
Well, respectfully, Senator, I don’t think there was a different standard. Not being a lawyer…

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine):
One was released within 4 months of the Obama administration taking office. The other had been requested for a very long – much longer time. Released only today.

John Brennan:
Right, I’m not a lawyer. I’ve come to learn the term so I’m trying to be sui generis, which you know there’s obviously unique circumstances surrounding it. The OLC memos released shortly after the President came into office, they were released because the program was terminated; it was no longer in existence. OLC – Office of Legal Counsel – opinions that deal with ongoing activities, ongoing programs – it’s a different animal. And therefore, I think those decisions were looked at in a much different way because of those sui generis circumstances.

Part two Q&A:

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine):
…If you looked at a map back in 2001, you would see that Al Qaeda was mainly in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And if you look at a map today, you would see Al Qaeda in all sorts of countries. This is not to say that there weren’t cells in other countries back in 2001. But it raises the question in my mind of whether even though we’ve been successful in taking out some of the core of Al Qaeda and some high-level leaders whether our strategy is working. If the cancer of Al Qaeda is metastasizing, do we need a new treatment?

John Brennan:
What we’ve tried to do, Senator, over the past decade and longer is to be able to treat this real cancer in a number of ways. Sometimes it takes lethal force. Sometimes it takes military might. Sometimes it takes working with our partners in a variety of ways. Sometimes it takes addressing some of the infrastructural institutional and other deficiencies that exist in these countries that Al Qaeda takes advantage of.

If you look at the geographic map from South Asia over through the Middle East and North Africa, there has been tremendous political turbulence in that area over the past decade, particularly the past couple of years. There are a lot of spaces – ungoverned spaces – that Al Qaeda has taken advantage of.

We’ve been able to make some significant progress in certain areas. Somalia is, in fact, a good example of a place where we’ve worked with neighboring countries, we’ve worked with the local government, we’ve worked with AMISOM [African Union Mission in Somalia] – a multilateral element within Africa to try to suppress the efforts of Al Shabaab and Al Qaeda in East Africa. Good progress has been made there because it has to be comprehensive…

Now, as we look at the Sahel and to the area in Mali and other areas, these are tremendous expanses of territory where Al Qaeda can put down roots beyond the reach of local governments and so they’ve been able to put down roots and it’s been unattended because of the difficulties these countries have even feeding their people much less putting in place a system of laws and the intelligence and security capability.

So is it a different strategy? It has to be a comprehensive one. But Al Qaeda and the forces of Islamic extremists that have really corrupted and perverted Islam are making some progress in areas that give me real concern. That’s why I look at a place like Syria right now – what’s going on in that country – we cannot allow vast areas to be exploited by Al Qaeda extremist forces because it will be to our peril.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine):
…Just two final questions. One has to do with priorities that you has said as Director if you are confirmed. In recent years paramilitary operations obviously have consumed a lot of resources, expertise, time, energy, and effort at the CIA. Do you believe this has been at the expense of traditional CIA responsibilities – collection, analysis, all-source?

John Brennan:
Well, certainly there have been opportunity costs because of the dedication of those resources. What I need to do is if I were to go to the CIA is to inventory exactly how our resources are being dedicated against the wide variety of strategic priorities to protect our country. In terms of operational collection activities worldwide, in terms of the all-source analysis being done, what are we doing in some of these areas – cyber, weapons proliferation, political turbulence – there’s so many different areas. Counter-terrorism is an important one. There’s also an intersection between counter-terrorism and a lot of these other areas – counter-proliferation, international organized crime, other things. So we really want to optimize those resources so that we can, in fact, leverage capabilities we have to deal with these very challenging issues across a very large globe.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine):
…In the last 4 years, you’ve held a political position at the White House and we’ve been talking to people at the CIA whom I respect and one intelligence official told me that a key question for the men and women of the CIA is which John Brennan are they going to get? Are they going to get John Brennan who’s been the right hand adviser of President Obama in a political White House and by nature of the position I don’t say that critically – that’s the position. Or are they going to get John Brennan who was a career CIA officer who worked his way up the ranks? And the concern is they want to hear that you’re going to be the CIA’s representative to the White House not the White House’s representative to the CIA. And I just want to give you the opportunity here today to respond to that concern. I would note that I also heard very good comments from people with whom I talked but I think it’s important when someone’s coming from a political role to make clear that you’re going to be the leader of the agency and not the White House’s agent within the agency.

John Brennan:
…I think if I were to be fortunate, privileged, and honored to go out to CIA, the CIA would get a John Brennan who is neither a Democrat or a Republican nor has ever been; a John Brennan who has a deep appreciation and respect for the intelligence profession; one who has been fortunate to have lived it for 25 years; a John Brennan who has had the great fortune to be in the White House the past 4 years watching and understanding how intelligence is used in support of our national security. The CIA would get a John Brennan who has been working national security issues for my life. It would get a John
Brennan who really understands that the value of intelligence – the importance of intelligence – is not to tell the President what he wants to hear, not to tell this committee what it wants to hear, but to tell the policymakers, the Congressional overseers what they need to hear, what the intelligence community with all its great capability and expertise has been able to uncover and understand about world events that fundamentally affect the lives of not just this generation of Americans but of future generations of Americans. And so if I have the great privilege to lead the great men and women of the CIA, it would be the biggest honor of my life and I would understand just how important and weighty that would be, and if I ever dishonor that responsibility, I couldn’t look myself in the mirror; I couldn’t look my parents, my family, I couldn’t look you in the face. It’s something that is very important to me so I guess the proof will be in the pudding – the tasting of the pudding. And if I do have that opportunity, it would be my intention to make sure I do everything possible to live up to the trust, confidence that this Congress, this Senate, and this President place in me.

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