Washington // The man who is set to become the next director of the CIA dodged the most probing questions about the legal basis for secretive drone strikes, arguing that criticism of the programme was misguided.
John Brennan, the US president Barack Obama's top counterterrorism adviser after 25 years at the CIA, has overseen the expansion of targeted killings of suspected Al Qaeda members that have little oversight from Congress and legal justifications that remain secret.
The hearing came the day before US drones fired two missiles into a compound in Pakistan's northwestern tribal belt. The strike killed at least nine militants and wounding more than five others, Pakistani officials said yesterday.
Mr Brennan had offered little new insight into the programme. But after his confirmation hearing on Thursday, the Democratic senate intelligence committee chairwoman, Dianne Feinstein, said that she thought it might be time to lift the veil on drone warfare. She said officials should acknowledge the strikes and correct what she said were exaggerated reports of civilian casualties.
Ms Feinstein said she and a number of other senators were considering writing legislation to set up a special court system to regulate drone strikes.
Speaking with uncharacteristic openness, Ms Feinstein said the CIA had allowed her staff to make more than 30 visits to its headquarters to monitor strikes. "I think the process set up internally is a solid process," she 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."
In the hearing's opening minutes, protesters from the anti-drones activist group, CodePink, repeatedly interrupted proceedings, holding up pictures of children allegedly killed in drone strikes in Yemen.
One woman yelled "I'm Pakistani. You're killing my people" as she was led out by police.
The rest of the hearing was held before mostly empty seats after Ms Feinstein ordered police to clear the chamber.
In his defence of the administration's use of drones, Mr Brennan said: "The people who are standing here today, I think they have a misunderstanding of what we do in government, the care taken, the agony we go through. People are reacting to a lot of falsehoods that are out there."
There were hopes that Mr Brennan would be forced to respond to direct questions on the most controversial aspects of drones when, just hours before the hearing, Mr Obama relented to demands by committee members to let them see classified memos on the legal basis for killing Americans who have not been charged with any crime.
Mr Obama, Mr Brennan said, always insisted that "any actions we take will be legally grounded … will have the appropriate review process … before any action is contemplated".
But when pushed by Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat, on how much evidence is needed before lethal force is used, Mr Brennan said only that US citizens who join Al Qaeda know the US is at war with the group and "have a right to surrender".
How the administration judges whether someone is a member of the group in the first place, or whether they should have the opportunity to disprove the accusation, was left unanswered.
The issue of checks on the White House's sole authority over targeted killings was brought into question by a number of senators.
"Having the executive be the prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner is very contrary to laws and traditions of this country," said senator Angus King, an independent from Maine.
Mr King also suggested that a secret federal court should be constituted that would rule on the legality of each drone strike.
Mr Brennan responded that it was "certainly worthy of discussion", but added that countering "imminent" threats was the sole responsibility of the president. No senator questioned the administration's definition of "imminence", which was revealed in a leaked legal summary last week to not require any evidence of a specific attack.
Much of the hearing dealt with the CIA's past mistakes, and whether Mr Brennan was involved.
He was questioned repeatedly about his knowledge of torture and waterboarding of Al Qaeda suspects during the George W Bush administration, when he was a senior CIA official. Mr Brennan said he had never been involved and opposed the practices, but some senators were sceptical.
Saxy Chambliss, the senior Republican on the committee, brought up the fact that Mr Brennan was included on more than 50 email messages detailing the "enhanced interrogation techniques".
"I professed my personal objections to it, but I did not try to stop it because it was something that was being done in a different part of the agency," Mr Brennan replied.
But he would not say that the CIA had been wrong and would also not be pressed into calling the interrogation methods "torture".
"I am not a lawyer, I can't give an answer," he said.
* With additional reporting by Associated Press and Agence France-Presse