Protests disrupt Senate hearing on nomination of ‘U.S. drone architect’

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Protesters denouncing U.S. drone attacks disrupted a Senate hearing Thursday on the nomination for the next CIA director, forcing police to clear the hall to keep demonstrators out.

“Stand up against drones,” yelled a protester, as President Barack Obama’s pick to lead the CIA, John Brennan, was repeatedly interrupted while trying to deliver his opening remarks to the Senate Intelligence Committee.

After five separate disruptions, the chair of the panel, Dianne Feinstein, ordered police to clear the room and to bar the return of protesters from the anti-war “Code Pink” activist group, many of whom held up their hands with palms painted pink.

Brennan,57, is widely seen as the architect of the large-scale covert drone war against Al-Qaeda, which Obama and his aides have declined to discuss openly.

Feinstein had barely lowered the gavel on the packed hearing when the first protester stood up and shouted. One demonstrator held up a hand-made sign that read: “Brennan = drone killing.”

Minutes later another woman, holding up a crude dummy of a child, stood to decry drone attacks which she said have killed children.

“Senator Feinstein, are your children more important than the children of Pakistan and Yemen?” she yelled.

Brennan kept his cool, resuming his testimony when prompted by Feinstein. But the senator had seen enough and ordered the hearing evacuated except for reporters and staff.

“We welcome everyone here,” Feinstein said when quiet returned. “We expect no clapping, we expect no hissing, we expect no demonstrations. This is a very serious hearing.”

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

Medea Benjamin, a Code Pink co-founder, held up a red poster that read: “Reject Obama chief terrorist John Brennan.”

The “targeted killings” against suspected Al-Qaeda militants in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere have been condemned by human rights groups as an illegal clandestine war.

But most lawmakers support the campaign as an effective way to counter Al-Qaeda extremists without deploying troops in risky military operations.

Protests at U.S. congressional hearings, which are usually open to the public, are relatively common, with security officials ordered to remove protesters.

The Senate hearing resumed after the five-minute disruption.

I did not take steps to stop the CIA’s use of those techniques. I was not in the chain of command of that program
John Brennan, CIA head nomineeMeanwhile, Brennan said on Thursday that he did not try to stop waterboarding, an interrogation technique that some consider torture, as he faced tough congressional questioning on that issue, security leaks and the use of drones to kill U.S. terrorism suspects.

Lawmakers pressed Brennan on controversial counterterrorism tactics employed while he was a CIA official under former President George W. Bush, and others whose use he helps oversee in his current role as chief counterterrorism adviser to Obama.

The issue of the now-banned harsh interrogation techniques derailed Brennan’s consideration for CIA director four years ago, and he met it head-on at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee.

“I did not take steps to stop the CIA’s use of those techniques. I was not in the chain of command of that program,” Brennan said. “I had expressed my personal objections and views to some agency colleagues” about waterboarding, a form of simulated drowning, nudity and other techniques, he said.

“But I did not try to stop it, because it was something that was being done in a different part of the agency under the authority of others, and it was something that was directed by the administration at the time,” he said.

In a bid to smooth congressional concerns about counterterrorism activities under his watch, Obama on Wednesday ordered the Justice Department to give House and Senate intelligence committees access to a classified legal opinion on killing U.S. terrorism suspects with drone strikes.

Mostly Democratic, lawmakers are demanding that the White House provide more of the legal documents underpinning its position that Obama can order lethal strikes overseas on U.S. citizens suspected of terrorist activity.

The administration insisted that only lawmakers be allowed access to the classified Justice Department papers, which means the committee’s lawyers are unable to read them.

Feinstein complained to Brennan that the committee’s staff had been banned from seeing the administration’s classified legal opinion.

Meanwhile, U.S. arch foe, Iran, had its state television has aired video footage that it says was extracted from a CIA drone it captured inside the Islamic republic’s airspace in December 2011.

In a documentary broadcast Wednesday, the elite Revolutionary Guards released the video, the first time it has been seen since the RQ-170 Sentinel was captured after it entered Iranian airspace from its eastern border with Afghanistan.

The Guards aerospace division, which said it seized the unmanned aircraft, said the footage showed images of the drone landing at an airbase in Kandahar in Afghanistan, as well as at a base in Pakistan.

Iran has previously claimed that it brought down the drone electronically by “spoofing” its GPS guidance system. U.S. officials have said that the Sentinel suffered a malfunction.

In January, Iran said that it was in possession of two more US-made RQ-11 reconnaissance drones it shot down over the previous 15 months, in addition to a ScanEagle drone and the RQ-170.