WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's choice to head the CIA faces a Senate Intelligence Committee confirmation hearing just hours after lawmakers are expected to receive a classified report providing the rationale for drone strikes targeting Americans working with al-Qaida overseas.
John Brennan, the White House counterterrorism chief and Obama's nominee to run the nation's spy agency, helped manage the drone program. The confirmation hearing Thursday sets the stage for a public airing of some of the most controversial programs in the covert war on al-Qaida, from the deadly drone strikes to the CIA's use of interrogation techniques like waterboarding during President George W. Bush's administration.
Obama directed the Justice Department to provide access to the secret document to members of the Senate and House intelligence committees, an administration official said Wednesday. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the Senate committee's chairman, said the legal opinion would be provided to her committee by Thursday morning.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., a committee member who had pressed the administration to provide the opinion, left open the possibility he might still try to block Brennan's nomination. He said turning over the opinion was a good first step.
"I'm committed to making sure that we get all the facts," Wyden said on NBC's "Today" show. "Early this morning, I'm going to be going in to read the opinion. We'll go from there."
Wyden said "there are still substantial questions" about how the administration justifies and plans drone strikes. "The Founding Fathers thought the president should have significant power in the national security arena. But there have to be checks and balances," Wyden said. "You can't just skirt those checks and balances if you think it's inconvenient."
An unclassified memo leaked this week says it is legal for the government to kill U.S. citizens abroad if it believes they are senior al-Qaida leaders continually engaged in operations aimed at killing Americans, even if there is no evidence of a specific imminent attack.
That unclassified memo is based on classified advice from the Office of Legal Counsel that is being made available to the intelligence committees' members, the official said. The official was not authorized to speak publicly about the decision and requested anonymity.
Brennan laid out the administration's policy for targeting al-Qaida with lethal drone strikes ahead of the hearing, defending the use of such strikes but disavowing the harsh interrogation techniques used when he was at the CIA.
In answers to pre-hearing questions released Wednesday by the Senate Intelligence Committee, Brennan said no further legislation was necessary to conduct operations against al-Qaida wherever it's operating.
Brennan answered some of his critics who charged him with backing the detention and interrogation policy while he served at the CIA. Those allegations stymied his attempt to head the intelligence agency when the Obama administration began in 2009.
Brennan said in his written answers that he was "aware of the program but did not play a role in its creation, execution, or oversight." He added that he "had significant concerns and personal objections" to the interrogation techniques and voiced those objections to colleagues at the agency privately.
Brennan went on to describe how individuals are targeted for drone strikes, saying whether a suspect is deemed an imminent threat — and therefore appropriate for targeting — is made "on a case-by-case basis through a coordinated interagency process" involving intelligence, military, diplomatic and other agencies.
Human rights and civil liberties groups have decried the methods for targeting terror suspects, especially U.S. citizens.
Brennan defended the missile strikes by unmanned Predator or Reaper drones as a more humane form of war, but he acknowledged "instances when, regrettably and despite our best efforts, civilians have been killed."
"It is exceedingly rare, and much rarer than many allege," he added.
Aides have portrayed Brennan as cautious in the use of drones, restraining others at the CIA or military who would use them more often, even though as the White House's counterterror adviser, he has presided over an explosion of drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Fewer than 50 strikes took place during the Bush administration while more than 360 strikes have been launched under Obama, according to the website The Long War Journal, which tracks the operations.
Administration officials say Brennan would further limit the use of drones by the CIA and leave the majority of strikes to the military. Brennan signaled in his written answers that he would not seek to expand the CIA's paramilitary operations.
"While the CIA needs to maintain a paramilitary capability ... the CIA should not be used, in my view, to carry out traditional military activities," Brennan wrote, referring to activities like the special operations raid that killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.
The CIA's drone strikes primarily focus on al-Qaida and Taliban targets in the tribal regions of Pakistan, while the military has launched strikes against al-Qaida targets in Yemen and Somalia. The agency also carries out strikes in Yemen, where three American citizens with al-Qaida connections have been killed: Anwar al-Awlaki, his 16-year-old-son and Samir Khan.
Brennan said he would work to improve the CIA's intelligence collection and performance across the Arab world after a spate of unanticipated unrest, from the revolts of the Arab Spring to the terror attack that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans in Benghazi, Libya.
Associated Press writers Julie Pace, Lara Jakes and Donna Cassata contributed to this report.