By Mark Hosenball
WASHINGTON Feb 6 (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's nominee to head the Central Intelligence Agency, John Brennan, is expected to face tough questioning about U.S. spy activities from waterboarding to the use of drones when he appears at a Senate confirmation hearing on Thursday.
Members of the Senate Intelligence Committee plan to examine Brennan, a former CIA executive under George W. Bush who has become the steward of Obama's drone policies, about controversial spy activities of both administrations, congressional sources said.
Much of the questioning is expected to focus on what Brennan knew about the Bush administration's use of harsh interrogation techniques on Islamic militant suspects captured and held, sometimes in secret CIA prisons, after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
Human rights activists and many U.S. politicians, including intelligence committee chairwoman Senator Dianne Feinstein and Republican Senator John McCain, have condemned some of the interrogation techniques as torture.
Democrats also are expected to question Brennan, the top White House adviser on counter-terrorism and homeland security, on the Obama administration's use of armed drone aircraft to attack suspected al Qaeda militants and encampments in countries including Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen.
Another line of questioning is expected to be Brennan's knowledge of alleged news leaks now under investigation by federal prosecutors, congressional aides said.
Despite the range of expected questions, Senate aides and political handicappers say they have not sensed a groundswell of opposition to Brennan's nomination. Brennan first surfaced as an Obama CIA nominee in 2008 but he withdrew after human rights activists protested his equivocal public statements regarding the agency's use of "enhanced interrogation" techniques, including the simulated drowning practice known as "waterboarding."
This time, human rights groups have raised questions about Brennan, but outside opposition has come nowhere close to the level mounted by conservative and pro-Israel groups against Chuck Hagel, Obama's nominee to replace Leon Panetta as Secretary of Defense.
Brennan's knowledge of waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques is likely to provoke intense committee questioning.
As Reuters reported earlier this month based on sources, classified CIA message traffic shows that Brennan had detailed, contemporaneous knowledge of the CIA's use of "enhanced interrogation techniques", including waterboarding.
After Brennan temporarily left government service in 2005, he publicly renounced waterboarding and other physically painful interrogation techniques.
Brennan and Obama administration officials have also said that Brennan objected privately to fellow intelligence officers about the use of physically-coercive methods.
"John has said previously that he was personally opposed to abusive interrogation techniques such as waterboarding. Additionally, he did not play a role in the creation, execution or oversight of these programs," White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said on Wednesday.
However, former Bush administration officials involved in the program say they do not recall such objections.
Questions about drones are expected after the leak this week of an unclassified Justice Department paper outlining Obama administration legal justifications and rules for using armed drones to attack American citizens alleged to be involved in terrorist plots.
In 2008, rules about drone use were revised to allow "signature strikes" on suspected militants, often "foreign fighters."
Congressional sources said Brennan may face questions regarding the administration's rules on targeted attacks on U.S. citizens and its alleged reluctance to share with Congress its legal justifications.
Brennan is also likely to face questions about a series of news leaks now under federal investigation. A congressional source said no evidence has emerged yet that Brennan played a role in some of the leaks.
The U.S. attorney in Baltimore is examining leaks about the alleged role of U.S. agencies in cyber-warfare activities against Iran, including the deployment of a virus known as Stuxnet.
The U.S. Attorney in Washington, D.C. is looking into leaks which led to the premature end of an undercover operation to infiltrate al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al Qaeda's Yemen-based affiliate.
The Associated Press first reported last May that the U.S. had disrupted a plot to bomb an airliner with a newly designed "underwear bomb."
Brennan subsequently advised former U.S. counter-terrorism officials who appear as TV news pundits that the plot was never a serious threat because the U.S. had "inside control" over the plot.
This led to a statement by one TV pundit that the U.S. apparently had "somebody on the inside" of the plot. Reuters later learned that British intelligence agencies helped to plant an informant in AQAP, and that their operation, in which Saudi and U.S. agencies also cooperated, had to be wound up prematurely because of leaks. (Reporting By Mark Hosenball; Editing by Claudia Parsons)