Obama's choice to run CIA defends US drone war

President Barack Obama's choice to run the CIA defended US drone strikes against Al-Qaeda militants as a "last resort" but acknowledged Thursday the government needed to explain the covert raids better.

As the architect of the drone war, John Brennan came under tough questioning at his confirmation hearing, as Democratic senators demanded the administration share more information about the strikes with Congress and the public.

The clandestine campaign "erodes the government's credibility with the American people," said Senator Mark Udall.

The hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee had hardly begun before protesters opposed to the drone attacks disrupted the proceedings, heckling Brennan before police cleared the hall to restore order.

As US Capitol Police removed protesters and other guests from the hearing room, one woman shouted: "This is a war criminal. He should not be confirmed!"

Afterward, Brennan referred to a "widespread debate" over counter-terrorism policies but said "disagreements should never prevent us from carrying out our national security and intelligence responsibilities."

Pressed about the clandestine nature of the drone strikes, Brennan said the government needed to speak out publicly about the "targeted killings" to dispel inaccurate assumptions.

"We only only take such actions as a last resort to save lives," said Brennan, a 25-year veteran of the CIA who has served as Obama's powerful counter-terrorism adviser.

"I think there really is 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.

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

But he added that secrecy also had to be upheld.

Brennan's confirmation hearing placed a rare public spotlight on Obama's drone campaign and associated missile strikes, involving hundreds of bombing raids by unmanned, robotic aircraft in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere.

On the eve of the hearing, Obama bowed to pressure from lawmakers and handed over a classified memo that outlines the legal justification for killing Americans abroad if they are suspected of plotting with Al-Qaeda.

Some Senate Democrats and Republicans have long demanded the document and had threatened to delay confirming Brennan as the next director of the Central Intelligence Agency over the issue.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the intelligence committee, welcomed the move but said she would propose legislation that would ensure a court review the drone strikes.

The Obama administration has sought to shroud the raids in secrecy but the threat of lawsuits and frustration from Congress has put pressure on officials to defend the drone campaign publicly.

Although Brennan is expected to be approved as the new head of the CIA, some senators seized on the hearing as a chance to question him on the legality of the drone raids as well as other aspects of the open-ended war against Al-Qaeda-linked militants.

Last year, the Justice Department had provided lawmakers with a summary of the secret legal opinion justifying targeting Americans, but members of the intelligence and judiciary committees had demanded the original document.

The secret memo was used as the legal basis for a controversial September 2011 drone attack in Yemen that killed the extremist cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and another target, Samir Khan.

The missile strike sparked concerns because Awlaki and Khan were US citizens who had never been charged with a crime.

Known for his relentless work ethic, Brennan, a former CIA station chief in Saudi Arabia, was on a shortlist for the CIA director's job when Obama entered office in 2009.

But he bowed out in the face of opposition over his role when the US spy agency used harsh interrogation methods, including waterboarding, that have been widely condemned as torture.

In his written responses to the committee before the hearing, Brennan said he was aware of the interrogation methods but had no role in their "creation, execution or oversight."