. During an extraordinary televised news conference Thursday, CIA Director John Brennan conceded that detainees underwent “abhorrent” interrogation methods and retreated from previous assertions that the techniques played a direct role in obtaining vital intelligence on terrorists.
But he refused to call the techniques torture and insisted that the harsh treatment meted out to suspected terrorists in secret cells hidden across the world, as described in a Senate Intelligence Committee report made public Tuesday, should not besmirch the reputation of the hundreds of CIA employees who worked diligently to protect Americans.
“In a limited number of cases, agency officers used interrogation techniques that had not been authorized, were abhorrent and rightly should be repudiated by all, and we fell short when it came to holding some officers accountable for their mistakes,” Brennan said. “It is vitally important to recognize, however, that the overwhelming majority of officers involved in the program at CIA carried our their responsibilities faithfully and in accordance with the legal and policy guidance they were provided.”
CIA officials said they couldn’t recall a similar instance when a director of the notoriously secretive Central Intelligence Agency appeared in a nationally televised news conference in which he responded to questions from reporters assembled at CIA headquarters in suburban Washington.
But the appearance underscored the extraordinary pressure the agency finds itself under after the release of the Senate report, which recounted in excruciating detail how the CIA supervised the use of waterboarding, sleep deprivation and other humiliating and abusive techniques on at least 39 of the 119 suspected terrorists who’d been kept in secret captivity.
In his presentation, Brennan acknowledged the accuracy of many of the Senate report’s findings, even as he sought to justify them as an understandable response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. He faulted the committee for not interviewing any CIA employees. Still, he said, “although we view the process undertaken by the committee . . . as flawed, many aspects of their conclusions are sound and consistent with our own prior findings.”
“The CIA was unprepared to conduct a detention and interrogation program,” he said. “Our officers inadequately developed and monitored its initial activities. The agency failed to establish quickly the operational guidelines needed to govern the entire effort.”
Perhaps his most startling assessment of the CIA’s interrogation program came near the end of his formal presentation before questions were allowed, when he seemed to break ranks with the repeated contention by the agency and former Bush administration officials that the so-called enhanced interrogation techniques – EITs – had produced vital intelligence that led to terrorist leaders, disrupted plots and saved lives.
Brennan said that the agency’s own reviews fell short of establishing definitively that the enhanced interrogation techniques had led detainees to make the revelations.
“Let me be clear, we have not concluded that it was the use of EITs within that program that allowed us to obtain useful information from detainees subjected to them,” Brennan said. “The cause and effect relationship between the use of EITs and useful information subsequently provided by the detainee is, in my view, unknowable.”
That comment in particular elicited praise from Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee who has sparred repeatedly with Brennan over the program and who took to Twitter during his speech to offer a counter narrative to his assertions.
In a statement, Feinstein called the director’s assessment “a welcome change from the CIA’s position in the past that information was obtained as a direct result of EITs.”
At the same time, she disagreed with Brennan’s assertion that it also was “unknowable” whether the information required to halt terrorist attacks could have been obtained from other sources.
“The report shows that such information was obtained from other means,” Feinstein said. “Nonetheless, it is an important development that Director Brennan does not attribute counterterrorism successes to coercive interrogations.”
Feinstein’s statement marked a significant shift away from the rancor and friction that have prevailed between the CIA and its congressional oversight committee over the report and the agency’s monitoring of computers used by the Democratic staffers who compiled it.
At the White House, spokesman Josh Earnest said that President Barack Obama retains “full confidence” in Brennan, who was a senior CIA official at the time of the interrogation program but insists he wasn’t directly involved.
Obama “wakes up every morning pleased to know that John Brennan and the men and women of the CIA are at work, using their skills and expertise to protect the American people,” and that Obama “continues to rely on his advice to this day,” said Earnest.
Brennan held his news conference in the marbled lobby of CIA headquarters, where 111 stars carved into one wall represent the number of CIA officers who’ve given their lives since the agency’s founding in 1947. Twenty-one of those officers have died since the fight against terrorism was launched after the 9/11 attacks.
Several dozen top CIA officials – the backs of their heads to the cameras – sat in front of Brennan in an apparent bid to humanize an agency that operates in the shadows and has come – as a result of the Senate report – under the most withering fire it has faced since congressional probes in the 1970s.
“We are not a perfect institution. We’re made up of individuals, and as human beings, we are imperfect beings,” Brennan said.
Brennan began by recalling the chaos and terror of the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent period in which the CIA scrambled to hunt down those responsible and avert what intelligence reports warned were more strikes in the United States planned by al Qaida.
The agency wasn’t prepared to undertake the detention and interrogation program when it was ordered to do so by President George W. Bush, he said. Moreover, the agency failed to discipline some personnel “for their mistakes,” he said.
But he rejected a conclusion that the CIA deliberately misled the Bush White House, Congress and the public about the program’s effectiveness.
“We take exceptional pride at speaking truth to power,” he said.
“To be clear, there were instances where representations . . . about the program that were used or approved by agency officers were inaccurate, imprecise or fell short of our tradecraft standards,” he said. “However, the study’s contention that we repeatedly and intentionally misled the public and the rest of the U.S. government rests on the committee’s view that detainees subjected to EITs did not produce useful intelligence, a point on which we still fundamentally disagree.”
Brennan called for an end to the bitter dispute over the program, which detained at least 119 people – at least 26 without cause – at black sites between 2002 and 2007. At last 39 were subjected to torture.
“My fervent hope is that we can put aside this debate and move forward to focus on issues relevant to our current security challenges,” he said.
That may be wishful thinking.
While the Republican-controlled Congress that opens in January is unlikely to take any further action, and the Obama administration is unlikely to reopen a criminal investigation closed in 2012, some Democrats, human rights groups and a United Nations special investigator are calling for criminal prosecutions.
Moreover, some U.S. allies are facing calls to disclose their cooperation with the CIA.
“As the Senate report shows, the CIA used methods that have long been understood to amount to torture. If we don’t hold officials accountable for ordering that conduct, our government will adopt these methods again in the future,” Anthony Romero, the American Civil Liberties Union’s executive director, said in a statement issued after Brennan spoke. “The fact that President Obama’s CIA director believes that these methods remain a policy option for the next administration shows why we need a special prosecutor.”