Washington - CIA Director-designate John Brennan strongly defended anti-terror attacks by unmanned drones on Thursday under close questioning at a protest-disrupted confirmation hearing.
On a second controversial topic, he said that after reading a classified intelligence report on harsh interrogation techniques, he does not know if water boarding has yielded useful information.
Despite what he called a public misimpression, Brennan told the Senate Intelligence Committee that drone strikes are used only against targets planning to carry out attacks against the United States, never as retribution for an earlier one. "Nothing could be further from the truth," he declared.
Referring to one American citizen killed by a drone in Yemen in 2011, he said the man, Anwar al-Alawki, had ties to at least three attacks planned or carried out on US soil.
They included the Fort Hood, Texas shooting that claimed 13 lives in 2009, a failed attempt to down a Detroit-bound airliner the same year and a thwarted plot to bomb cargo planes in 2010.
"He was intimately involved in activities to kill innocent men women and children, mostly Americans," Brennan said.
In a sign that the hearing had focused intense scrutiny on the drone programme, Democratic Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein told reporters after the hearing that she thinks it may be time to lift the secrecy off the program so that US officials can acknowledge the strikes and correct what she said were exaggerated reports of civilian casualties.
Feinstein said she and a number of other senators are considering writing legislation to set up a special court system to regulate drone strikes, similar to the one that signs off on government surveillance in espionage and terror cases.
Speaking with uncharacteristic openness about the classified programme, Feinstein said the CIA had allowed her staff to make more than 30 visits to the CIA's Langley, Virginia, headquarters to monitor strikes, but that the transparency needed to be widened.
"I think the process set up internally is a solid process," Feinstein said, but added: "I think there's an absence of knowing exactly who is responsible for what decision.
So I think we need to look at this whole process and figure a way to make it transparent and identifiable."
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.
Brennan is a veteran of more than three decades in intelligence work, and is currently serving as Obama's top counter-terrorism adviser in the White House.
Any thought he had of becoming CIA director four years ago vanished amid questions about the role he played at the CIA when the Bush administration approved water boarding and other forms of "enhanced interrogation" of suspected terrorists.
On the question of water boarding, Brennan said that while serving as a deputy manager at the CIA during the Bush administration, he was told such interrogation methods produced "valuable information."
Now, after reading a 300-page summary of a 6 000-page report on CIA interrogation and detention policies, he said he does "not know what the truth is."