The administration's top counterterrorism adviser said Thursday he was aware of the CIA's enhanced interrogation techniques that critics describe as torture while serving as a top official at the agency but did nothing to stop them because he had no oversight role.
"I did not take steps to stop the CIA use of those techniques," John Brennan told his Senate confirmation hearing. Brennan was nominated by President Barack Obama to lead the spy agency after Gen. David Petraeus resigned from the job over an extramarital affair.
The issue was controversial in the administration of former President George W. Bush in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
In answering questions about the techniques, Brennan acknowledged that he knew another part of the agency was carrying out a directive from the Bush administration.
"I had awareness that the agency was being asked to do it; I was aware that the agency was moving ahead on it," he told the Senate Intelligence Committee, adding that he was not involved in managing it.
At the time, Brennan was the CIA's deputy executive director.
On the same issue, Brennan said a committee report on the interrogation techniques contained "disturbing" information that raised questions about whether he knew what really happened.
The 6,000-page report took six years to compile, and Brennan said he read the 300-page executive summary before Thursday's hearing.
"Now I have to determine what the truth is," he said. "I do not know what the truth is."
Under persistent questioning by Sen. Carl Levin, D-Michigan, Brennan pledged that waterboarding would never be used under his direction, but he refused to label it torture.
On the issue of drone strikes on terrorist targets abroad, Brennan defended the 2011 killing of Yemeni-American Anwar al-Awlaki as part of the war against al Qaeda.
Brennan said al-Awlaki's involvement in efforts to kill Americans made him a legitimate military target.
Under prodding from committee Chairwoman Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, Brennan confirmed a connection between al-Awlaki and Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab, who failed in his attempt to detonate an explosive in his underwear as his Northwest Airlines flight approached Detroit on Christmas Day in 2009.
However, Brennan offered no details of the connection, and noted al-Awlaki's role as a propagandist for al-Qaeda who fomented anti-American sentiments via the Internet.
The hearing was temporarily halted at the start when protesters repeatedly interrupted Brennan's opening statement. Some waved signs accusing him of war crimes because of the drone attacks.
Feinstein ordered the room cleared of spectators and told security officers to prevent the re-entry of protesters from Code Pink, which describes itself as a women-initiated group for peace and social justice.
Brennan is considered to be behind the administration's dramatic rise in the use of drones against terrorist suspects.
Several strikes have killed Americans, notably al-Awlaki.
Brennan defended the drone program, saying that Obama "insisted that any actions we take will be legally grounded, will be thoroughly anchored in intelligence, will have the appropriate review process, approval process before any action is contemplated, including those actions that might involve the use of lethal force."
"My role as the president's counterterrorism adviser was to help to orchestrate this effort over the past four years to ensure, again, that any actions we take fully comport with our law and meet the standards that I think this committee and the American people expect of us as far as taking actions we need to protect the American people, but at the same time ensuring that we do everything possible before we need to resort to lethal force," he said.
An unclassified outline of the administration's policy given last summer to Congress indicated that the government could use lethal force against an American overseas if the person was a senior operational leader of al Qaeda or one of its affiliates and an attack was imminent.
The Senate Intelligence Committee received a classified document on Thursday that seeks to justify the administration's policy of targeting Americans overseas via drone attacks, a congressional aide told CNN.
The document was demanded by lawmakers, mainly Democrats concerned about secrecy in national security decision making, before Brennan's hearing.
It outlines the Justice Department's legal rationale for the policy of using lethal force against U.S. citizens fighting on behalf of terrorist groups.
According to an official who spoke on the condition of not being identified, Obama decided to turn over the legal opinion because he believes the scrutiny and debate is healthy.