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For CIA chief, Obama taps drone strike defender (+video)

John Brennan, nominated to lead the CIA, is one of the few administration officials who has publicly supported the use of controversial interrogation techniques and drone strikes.

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Said to be conversant in Arabic, Brennan played a hands-on role in Obama's Yemen policy, which was aimed at easing President Ali Abdullah Saleh from office while ensuring counterterrorism cooperation stayed on track. He traveled to Sanaa several times.

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Senator Dianne Feinstein, who chairs the Senate intelligence committee that will hold a hearing on the nomination, said Brennan would make a "strong and positive director" of the CIA. In a statement, the California Democrat said that she would discuss with Brennan CIA detention and interrogation operations.

DEFENDER OF DRONES

In April 2012, Brennan publicly defended the U.S. campaign of lethal drone strikes as legal under international law. It was a rare public justification for classified operations that government officials infrequently discuss in public and that the CIA does not officially acknowledge.

In June 2011, Brennan alluded to drone strikes more opaquely, saying that over the prior year "not a single collateral death" had resulted from counterterrorism operations that were "exceptionally precise and surgical." Rights groups challenged the assertion that no civilians died during that period as a result of drone strikes.

The earlier comment came three months before a CIA drone killed Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, an American born member of al Qaeda, in Yemen. Another drone strike killed his 16-year-old U.S.-born son.

U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan have been a source of tension with the United States. One national security official familiar with Brennan's White House record said he is expected to favor aggressively moving forward with drone operations, even at the expense of offending Pakistani sensibilities.

The CIA and the U.S. military in recent years have been working more closely together, as in the bin Laden operation, which was run by the CIA but executed by the SEALs.

"Everybody looks at the CIA as insular, as sometimes difficult to establish relationships with, and so the degree to which the director can be one of the key forces for reaching out and breaking down those walls is really helpful," retired General Stanley McChrystal said in an interview with Reuters. "I think he can certainly be one of those types of leaders."

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