Director Defends CIA Against Senate Torture Claims

While admitting past mistakes, the CIA director, John Brennan, defends his agency from scrutiny.

President Barack Obama speaks with CIA director John Brennan at the White House in Washington DC, February 18, 2010
President Barack Obama speaks with CIA director John Brennan at the White House in Washington DC, February 18, 2010 (White House/Pete Souza)

After two straight days of pummeling by human rights advocates, Senate Democrats and most of the American media, CIA director John Brennan took to the airwaves on Thursday to respond to a much-awaited Senate Intelligence Committee report about the agency’s Rendition, Detention and Interrogation (RDI) program under the George W. Bush administration.

The roughly five-hundred page summary of the document, which into the thousands of pages, paints the picture of a rogue intelligence agency using techniques that most Americans, indeed most people around the world, would consider torture: dousing detainees with cold water, using waterboarding during interrogation sessions and forcing prisoners to stay awake for almost a week. The Senate report makes the case that the CIA not only lied to Congress about the use of these methods but provided misleading information to the Bush White House and the Justice Department, both about the intelligence that was derived from the enhanced interrogations and the quality of that intelligence.

John Brennan, a CIA veteran of over three decades, spoke to reporters on Thursday and provided a staunch defense of the agency’s conduct during the program’s seven years.

The enhanced interrogation techniques, Brennan argued, were not only approved by the Justice Department and the White House but endorsed by the very members of Congress who are equating America’s spies to torturers.

“Our reviews indicate that the detention and interrogation program produced useful intelligence that helped the United States thwart attacks, capture terrorists and save lives,” said Brennan. And no, the CIA did not deliberately mislead the White House, the Congress or the Justice Department about what they were doing, he added.

Brennan’s public remarks mirrored a written rebuttal (PDF) the CIA wrote in July of last year but released this week in response to the Senate report. It contends that the use of enhanced interrogation techniques, principally waterboarding, was crucial in foiling terrorist plots against Americans and allowed the United States to discover information about the Al Qaeda structure and leadership that contributed to the terrorist group’s demise.

The rebuttal is passionate about Senate Democrats’ conclusion that the agency lied to elected officials, calling the allegations unsubstantiated based on the record. If the CIA was lax in its briefings to members of Congress, it says the blame lays with the White House. “CIA did not have the unilateral authority to brief individuals or groups independent of presidential direction as conveyed by the national security advisor,” it claims.

Despite these inaccuracies, Director Brennan and the CIA leadership did in fact admit mistakes.

The early implementation and supervision of the RDI program was sloppy. The agency was forced to create an interrogation program immediately after the September 11, 2001 attacks on President George W. Bush’s orders. The CIA had no experience at operating a worldwide detention program, nor did it have the personnel to interrogate captured terrorists in a professional manner. As Brennan said, “the program was uncharted territory for the CIA and we were not prepared.”

Brennan needed to address the Senate report on torture in public — not only to vouch for a workforce that feels jaded by the public criticism of its past activities but also in order to drill home the point that the CIA is a learning organization that will use its past to better itself in the years ahead. He tries to tow the line between acknowledging mistakes and supporting the Obama Administration’s negative judgment of the enhanced interrogation program, all the while defending the dedication of CIA employees who were (and are) placed in extraordinarily difficult positions. Whether or not the director retained the confidence of his workers, however, is a distant second to retaining the agency’s credibility and support from the American people.