By Tabassum Zakaria
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's pick for CIA director, John Brennan, promised senators who will vote on his nomination more openness about U.S. counter-terrorism programs, saying the closely guarded number of civilian casualties from drone strikes should be made public, according to his written responses to questions released on Friday.
Brennan was questioned sharply by Democrats and Republicans alike during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on his nomination last week.
Along with harsh interrogation techniques, Brennan was questioned about drone strikes against terrorism suspects in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and elsewhere. These strikes have increased under Obama and included the killing in Yemen of a U.S.-born cleric suspected of ties to al Qaeda and his U.S.-born son.
The U.S. government, without releasing numbers, has sought to portray civilian deaths from these strikes as minimal. But other organizations which collect data on these attacks put the number of civilians killed in the hundreds.
"I believe that, to the extent that U.S. national security interests can be protected, the U.S. government should make public the overall numbers of civilian deaths resulting from U.S. strikes targeting al Qaeda," Brennan wrote in response to a question from Senator Dianne Feinstein, the committee chairwoman.
"In those rare instances in which civilians have been killed" reviews are conducted and, if appropriate, condolence payments are provided to the families, he wrote.
Such casualties from drone strikes have created profound anger among civilian populations overseas and severe tension between the United States and Pakistan and Afghanistan.
During last week's hearing, Feinstein said she had been trying to speak publicly about the "very low number of civilian casualties" and to verify that number each year has "typically been in the single digits." However, she said she was told she could not divulge the actual numbers because they were classified.
The New America Foundation said the number of civilians killed by U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan was 261-305 from 2004 to 2013. (http://counterterrorism.newamerica.net/drones).
A former intelligence official said the reason for the discrepancy between the U.S. government's apparently lower figures on civilian deaths and those collected by other organizations may be due to what is counted as a civilian death.
The government assumes "military-aged" males in the proximity of a drone strike are combatants unless it finds out otherwise, the former official said.
Asked whether the government could carry out drone strikes inside the United States, Brennan replied: "This administration has not carried out drone strikes inside the United States and has no intention of doing so."
U.S. legal authorities have not limited the geographic scope to a war zone for using force against al Qaeda and its affiliates, he noted, adding: "This does not mean, however, that we use military force whenever or wherever we want."
YEMEN LEAK PROBE
On another topic, Brennan said he had been advised by the Justice Department that he is a witness in, and not a target of, a criminal investigation into media leaks last year about the disruption of an underwear bomb plot by al Qaeda's affiliate in Yemen. He said he had spoken to investigators, but been advised they have no plans to speak with him again.
Brennan said the Justice Department had provided his lawyer with a transcript of a conference call about the plot which he held last May 7 with former counter-terrorism officials who serve as TV news analysts.
At his confirmation hearing, Brennan confirmed the accuracy of a report by Reuters that during the conference call, he told the pundits that the alleged plot was never a real threat because the U.S. had "inside control" over it. But he vigorously disputed that he had leaked classified information.
Within hours, one of the analysts on the call appeared on TV saying that the U.S. government was implying that it had "somebody on the inside" of the alleged plot "who wasn't going to let it happen." News reports then proliferated saying the U.S. or its allies had succeeded in planting an informant inside al Qaeda's Yemen branch.
Brennan said in his written responses that he had given a transcript of his conference call with the pundits to the committee. Congressional officials said the Obama administration had requested that it be kept confidential, even though Brennan testified that nothing he told the pundits was classified.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for a copy of the transcript.
The committee's vote on Brennan's nomination has been delayed until after a congressional recess next week.
(Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball. Editing by Warren Strobel and Christopher Wilson)