C.I.A. Director Defends Use of Interrogation Tactics, Avoiding Issue of Torture (Published 2014)

LANGLEY, Va. — John O. Brennan, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, on Thursday strongly defended C.I.A. officers who carried out brutal interrogation tactics against Qaeda suspects, describing agency interrogators as “patriots” and admonishing only those who went “outside the bounds” of Justice Department rules.

Speaking from inside the marble lobby of the C.I.A.’s headquarters, Mr. Brennan on Thursday challenged the conclusions of an excoriating report by the Senate Intelligence Committee that concluded the agency’s detention program had yielded little valuable information, and that the C.I.A. repeatedly misled the White House and Congress about the efficacy of the program. Mr. Brennan said that the C.I.A. detention program had value, even if it is “unknowable” whether useful intelligence was obtained as the direct result of brutal interrogation methods.

Unlike President Obama, Mr. Brennan pointedly refused to say that the methods — including waterboarding, shackling prisoners in painful positions, and locking them in coffin-like boxes — amounted to torture.

His characterization of the program on Thursday was a contrast to the remarks he made in 2009 while serving as Mr. Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, when he said that the interrogation methods “led us astray from our ideals as a nation” and that “tactics such as waterboarding were not in keeping with our values as Americans.” Asked on Thursday about those comments, Mr. Brennan said he stood by them.

He is in a different role today, leading a C.I.A. work force that still comprises hundreds of officers who were involved in the detention and interrogation program.

The embattled C.I.A. director’s surroundings lent gravity to what is believed to be the first televised news conference from inside the agency’s headquarters. To Mr. Brennan’s right, as he spoke, was the C.I.A.’s Memorial Wall, carved with 111 stars representing C.I.A. officers killed in the line of duty. To his left was a passage from the Gospel of St. John etched into another wall: “And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.”

He was unstinting in his praise of the C. I. A’s response after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, even while agreeing with the conclusions of the Senate Intelligence Committee that the agency was ill-prepared for its new role as jailers and conducted poor oversight of the program during its early years.

Although he said the C.I.A. was out of the interrogation business, he offered no assurances that anything prevented the government from authorizing the same techniques in the face of another crisis. “I defer to the policy makers in future times,” he said.

While Mr. Brennan acknowledged that hard work went into the Senate report — which took five years to complete and involved the examination of millions of documents — he criticized the investigation as “flawed,” “partisan,” and “frustrating,” and pointed out numerous disagreements that he had with the report’s damning conclusions about the C.I.A. now-defunct prison program.

His position about the efficacy of the interrogation techniques was an attempt to thread a needle between Senate Democrats who have argued that the brutal techniques played little role in disrupting significant terror plots or hunting down leaders of Al Qaeda like Osama bin Laden, and former C.IA. officials who during a fiery counterattack to the Senate report have said that waterboarding and other interrogation methods were central to counterterrorism successes since 2001.

As Mr. Brennan put it, using C.I.A. shorthand for enhanced interrogation techniques, “we have not concluded that it was the use of E.I.T.s within that program that allowed us to obtain useful information from detainees subjected to them.”

“The cause and effect relationship between the use of E.I.T.s and useful information subsequently provided by the detainee is, in my view, unknowable,” he said.

White House officials insist that Mr. Brennan — who has long been one of Mr. Obama’s closest advisers — remains in favor with the president.

Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, on Thursday called Mr. Brennan a “patriot” and said that Mr. Obama retains “full confidence” in his C.I.A. director.

In his remarks, Mr. Brennan acknowledged that in a limited number of cases, C.I.A. officers had used “interrogation methods that had not been authorized, were abhorrent and rightly should be repudiated by all.”

But the “overwhelming majority of officers involved in the program,” he said, carried out their responsibilities “faithfully and in accordance with the legal and policy guidance they were provided.”

Some of the most shocking examples contained in the Senate Intelligence Committee report involved C.I.A. interrogations that were within the wide boundaries established by the Justice Department.

The report gave an excruciating account of the 2002 interrogation of Abu Zubaydah in Thailand. The interrogation sessions became so extreme that some C.I.A. officers began choking up with tears and requested to be transferred out of the facility if the torture continued.

According to one C. I. A. cable cited in the report, during one waterboarding session Abu Zubaydah became “completely unresponsive with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth.”

After weeks of constant interrogation, according to C.I.A. cables, Abu Zubaydah would dutifully get into position to be waterboarded with just the cock of an eyebrow and two finger snaps from an interrogator.

Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the chief planner of the Sept. 11 attacks, was waterboarded so much his abdomen swelled with water.

The report also details several instances in which interrogators used unauthorized tactics. At a secret prison in Afghanistan known as the Salt Pit — what one C.I.A. officer likened to a “dungeon” — a detainee died of hypothermia after being doused with water and left chained, half-naked, to a cold concrete floor

Senator Dianne Feinstein, the chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee, offered a running — often critical — commentary on Twitter during Mr. Brennan’s remarks.

“Useful information was not the legal policy standard for E.I.T.,” Ms. Feinstein wrote.

Later in the day, however, Ms. Feinstein struck a more conciliatory tone.

In a statement, she said Mr. Brennan’s remarks “showed that C.I.A. leadership is prepared to prevent this from ever happening again — which is all important.”

She disagreed with Mr. Brennan’s conclusion that it is “unknowable” whether brutality and torture employed by the C.I.A. was effective, but said she was “pleased that Director Brennan is attempting to acknowledge past mistakes by the agency in order to focus on current and future missions.”

The release of the report has renewed questions about the role of Mr. Brennan — who was a senior C. I. A. officer at the beginning of the Bush administration — in the detention program.

Mr. Brennan said in the past that he objected to the interrogation methods when they were in place, but sidestepped the issue on Thursday. “I was not in the chain of command,” he said.

One of Mr. Brennan’s predecessors as C.I.A. director, Leon E. Panetta, was far more critical in public of the agency’s interrogation techniques — labeling the methods “torture” during his confirmation hearing.

In his book, “Worthy Fights,” Mr. Panetta said, “It is foolish to maintain that those interrogations did not achieve anything, but it is also callous to pretend that we did not sacrifice idealism in return for those leads.”

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