CIA Director John Brennan Says Value of Harsh Interrogations 'Unknowable'

CIA Director John Brennan said the effectiveness of harsh interrogation tactics used on terror suspects a decade ago is unknowable even though the information gained thwarted attacks and saved lives.

This was a departure from the position of supporters of the “enhanced interrogation techniques,” who have long maintained the use of waterboarding and other methods produced vital intelligence and couldn’t have been obtained by less brutal means.

“There was useful intelligence, very useful, valuable intelligence that was obtained from individuals who had been, at some point, subjected” to the harsh tactics, Brennan said today in a press conference at the Central Intelligence Agency’s Langley, Virginia, headquarters outside Washington. “Whether that could have been obtained without the use of those EITs is something that is, again, unknowable.”

It was Brennan’s first public appearance since the release this week of a report critical of the agency’s interrogation of terrorism suspects. The report, by Senate Democrats on the intelligence committee, concluded the CIA misled Congress about overseas interrogations and that they were more brutal and less effective than the agency claimed. The program ended in 2009.

“The program was uncharted territory for the CIA and we were not prepared,” Brennan said. “We failed to live up to the standards we set for ourselves.”

‘Welcome Change’

Brennen won some praise from Senator Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat and chairman of the committee that released the report. She said Brennan’s comments were “a welcome change” from the agency position that detainees responded as a “direct result” of the harsh tactics.

“It is an important development that director Brennan does not attribute counterterrorism successes to coercive interrogations,” Feinstein said in a statement.

The debate over the effectiveness of the tactics, which included simulated drowning, known as waterboarding, rectal force-feeding and in one case leaving a partly naked man shackled to the floor so long he died of hypothermia, have heated up since the report was released on Dec. 9.

Bin Laden

The Senate concluded the harsh interrogations weren’t effective and didn’t produce key information that led to the killing of Sept. 11 mastermind Osama bin Laden, contrary to claims by program supporters.

The committee reviewed 20 of the most frequent and prominent examples of interrogation cases that the CIA claimed produced valuable information. None of the cases showed that information was obtained that saved lives or that couldn’t have been gleaned from other means, according to the findings.

Brennan said today that the harsh interrogation “provided information that was useful and was used” to find and kill bin Laden.

“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,” he said. “We fell short when it came to holding some officers accountable for their mistakes.”

He conceded that coercive methods at times yielded false information and strayed beyond what had been approved by the U.S. Justice Department. “The cause and effect relationship between the use of EITs and useful information subsequently provided by the detainee is, in my view, unknowable.”

‘Inaccurate, Imprecise’

Brennan disputed the Senate report’s contention that the agency systematically misled Congress, White House officials and the American public about the nature and breadth of the interrogation program.

“To be clear, there were instances where representations that the program -- about the program that were used or approved by agency officers were inaccurate, imprecise or fell short of our tradecraft standards,” he said.

Asked if CIA leadership had been lied to by employees in the field, he said: “I cannot say with certainty whether or not individuals acted with complete honesty.”

Brennan said the CIA has taken steps to avoid similar errors, including broadening the scope of accountability reviews, reviewing plans and oversight of covert actions and reviewing the legal opinions that support sensitive programs.

Congress Informed

“We are also carefully observing the new statutory requirement to provide our oversight committees with notice of any significant legal interpretation of the Constitution or other U.S. law affecting intelligence activities conducted by the CIA,” he said.

The Senate report cost $40 million and took six years to complete and is the most comprehensive assessment of the CIA’s “black site” detention facilities and the interrogation techniques used on at least 119 terrorism suspects after the terrorist attacks.

Brennan began his remarks by recounting the nation’s horror in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks on New York and Washington. “We feared more blows from an enemy we couldn’t see and an evil we couldn’t fathom,” Brennan said.

“We were not prepared and the individuals that were given the responsibility to carry out this work were ones who were trying to do their best and at times came up short,” Brennan said.

‘Sound’ Conclusions

While Brennan said the CIA viewed the committee’s process as flawed, “many aspects of their conclusions are sound and consistent with our own prior findings.”

Brennan, 59, was President Barack Obama’s point-man on the hunt for al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and was at his side through crises such as the Arab Spring, the meltdown of a Japanese nuclear plant, and a failed attempt to blow up a U.S. jetliner. He came to a White House short on inner-circle military and intelligence veterans with a 25-year career in the CIA and experience as the agency’s Saudi Arabia station chief.

Brennan “has the full confidence of the president,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said today. He again declined to say whether the president agrees with the CIA director’s previous statements that the brutal interrogation methods resulted in critical intelligence.

“The president’s view is it is impossible to know whether the use of an enhanced interrogation technique” produced information that couldn’t have been gotten by other means, he said.

Bush, Panetta

Brennan was at the White House early today to give Obama a daily briefing, which Earnest called “not particularly unusual.”

Brennan was a top official at the agency under President George W. Bush then served as head of the National Counterterrorism Center.

He succeeded Leon Panetta as CIA director shortly after the start of Obama’s second term, after undergoing a tough round of questioning on Capitol Hill. During his confirmation, he portrayed himself as a fringe player in the CIA’s interrogation program.

“The president needs to purge his administration of high-level officials who were instrumental to the development and running of this program,” Senator Mark Udall, a Colorado Democrat who lost his re-election bid last month, said yesterday on the Senate floor. “For director Brennan, this means resigning.”

While he agreed with Obama’s 2009 decision to end a program of brutal interrogations that the White House has characterized as torture, Brennan defended the agency in a June 2013 letter to Senate Select Intelligence Committee leaders, accusing them of reaching a “flawed conclusion regarding the lack of any intelligence that flowed from the program.”

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