John Brennan, the man picked by President Barack Obama to replace David Petraeus as head of the CIA, attended confirmation hearings before the Senate Intelligence Committee this morning Australian time.

As Deputy National Security Advisor and chief counter-terrorism adviser to Obama, Brennan has overseen the US drone strike program that has resulted in the deaths several hundred civilians, including over 160 children. At the CIA, he would have access to the agency’s own drone program, separate from the Department of Defense’s program, although both are overseen by the White House.

While apologists might dismiss the killing of several hundred civilians by drones as a “necessary” consequence of the War on Terror (even as a senior US general admits how much damage they cause to the US), two deaths can’t be so easily dismissed: those of Anwar al-Awlaki and his son Abdulrahman al-Awlaki in Yemen in 2011. They are a different matter entirely, at least legally. They were American citizens, and they were killed by their government without any due process of any kind.

Anwar was an active member of al-Qaeda; that is not in dispute, although his chief role toward the end of his life appeared to be that of propagandist. He was deliberately targeted in a drone strike in Yemen in September 2011 after Obama had added his name to a secret terrorist assassination list in 2010.

Abdulrahman was no member of al-Qaeda. He was a 16-year-old boy, who was born and grew up in Denver. He was killed a fortnight after his father, in a separate drone strike in Yemen.

There is no suggestion that he was involved in any way with his fathers’ activities: the US initially tried to claim after the strike that he was a “military-age male”, in line with the regular US practice of insisting anyone killed in a drone strike is automatically a “militant”. Later, an anonymous administration source admitted the boy was “in the wrong place at the wrong time” and a senior Obama associate blamed Anwar — by the time of the strike, dead two weeks — for his son’s death.

So, an American boy is killed by his own government, and his death is waved away with excuses, and not even an inquiry or official admission of error.

At Brennan’s confirmation hearing this morning, he was asked by both Republican and Democrat senators to justify a process in which US citizens like Anwar are targeted for assassination by their own government at the whim of the President. Even the Committee chair, Dianne Feinstein, usually a slavish supporter of US intelligence agencies, flagged a proposal to establish a secret court to provide due process for US citizens marked for death by their own government.

Brennan, whose appearance was repeatedly disrupted by protesters, insisted the program — which the administration barely acknowledges exists — is “legally grounded”, despite being conducted entirely in secret. The administration this week released a paper explaining its legal reasoning for the extra-judicial killing of US citizens, which essentially revolved around a senior official deciding that a citizen represented a “continuing threat” to the US.

And he insisted that the evidence against Anwar was compelling — which as Glenn Greenwald noted on Twitter, begs the question of why he wasn’t indicted before being assassinated, rather than being subjected to a secret process inside the White House.

Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden also pushed Brennan about the lack of transparency around the drone program, demanding information on which countries the program is operating in. On another issue, Brennan remarkably refused to acknowledge the CIA’s practice of waterboarding as torture, placing himself at odds with outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who has bluntly declared the practice “torture and wrong”.

Brennan is likely to be confirmed, particularly after Feinstein effusively praised him at the close of the session. These hearings are thus likely to be as close as Brennan gets to where he should be: in the dock and on trial for the killings of Americans Anwar al-Awlaki and Abdulrahman al-Awlaki.