CIA Director John O. Brennan on Thursday criticized Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Democrats for producing a “flawed” report on enhanced interrogation techniques that failed to interview key personnel about their decisions, offering a half-throated defense of the defunct program that he maintained had provided valuable information used to thwart terror attacks and track down terrorists.
Mr. Brennan, in a rare televised news conference from CIA headquarters, said it was “unknown and unknowable” whether crucial intelligence could have been gleaned any other way. He dubbed some techniques “abhorrent,” but the director praised agency employees for shouldering the heavy burden of keeping America safe during the years immediately following the 9/11 terror attacks.
President Obama banned the use of such coercive interrogation techniques as waterboarding in 2009 and has since described the activities as “torture” under a program largely replaced by the equally clandestine use of drones to simply kill terror suspects in several parts of the world rather than capture and question them.
Mr. Brennan stopped short of using the word “torture” Thursday, saying he would “leave to others how they might want to label those activities.” He also declined to discuss the drone program when pressed by a reporter on whether he worries that it too may one day come under the kind of public scrutiny and debate that the coercive interrogation program has been subjected to this week.
“I’m not going to talk about any type of operational activity that this agency is involved in currently,” he said, although he added that “the use of these unmanned aerial vehicles that you refer to as drones in the counterterrorism effort has done tremendous work to keep this country safe.”
His appearance capped a dayslong campaign by the agency and several of its former leaders to convey their side of the story to counter the nearly 500-page document released Tuesday after a five-year probe into the agency’s harrowing post-9/11 interrogation practices.
Concerned that characterizations of torture have obscured the fact that a potential “second wave” of al Qaeda attacks on America was prevented, the former officials have described the report as bitingly partisan.
Intelligence Committee Republicans withdrew from the investigation years ago amid a debate over its relevance after a Justice Department probe concluded during the George W. Bush administration that the enhanced interrogation broke no U.S. laws.
While the actual 6,000-page committee report remains classified, an executive summary released by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat and chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee, accused the CIA of intentionally and routinely misleading Congress on the interrogation program — specifically by making what the report described as “inaccurate” claims about the “effectiveness” of torture inflicted on detainees.
The document, seen widely as the most comprehensive public accounting to date by Congress of the CIA’s handling of terror suspects at so-called “black site” secret prisons in Eastern Europe and Asia after 9/11, said the agency lied about the program’s scope, including about the number of suspects who were detained and the number subjected to techniques such as waterboarding.
It also said the harsh treatment of terrorism suspects produced no key evidence in the hunt for Osama bin Laden, who was killed in a U.S. special operations forces raid in Pakistan in 2011.
Mr. Brennan shot back at the report Thursday, saying the overall examination conducted by Democrats was shoddy and lacked context because Intelligence Committee investigators failed to interview any officials who administered — or oversaw — the program.
“It’s lamentable that the committee did not avail itself of the opportunity to be able to interact with CIA personnel,” he said, noting that committee staffers instead relied on millions of pages of internal agency communications to draw the report’s conclusions.
“I think by just a review of the documentary evidence, of all the documents that were provided by the agency,” Mr. Brennan said, “you lose the opportunity to really understand what was taking place at the time. It loses that context.”
“I wish the committee took the opportunity to ask CIA officers who were involved in the program at the time,” he said.
At the same time, Mr. Brennan said that many of the conclusions drawn by Intelligence Committee Democrats “are sound and consistent with” the CIA’s “own prior findings.”
“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. “And we fell short when it came to holding some officers accountable.”
The CIA director also stopped short of defending the program. He appeared to be playing both sides of the fence on the question of whether the harsh techniques were useful in extracting intelligence — including information helpful to the hunt for bin Laden.
On one hand, Mr. Brennan said outright that the since-banned rendition, detention and interrogation program “produced useful intelligence.” But on the other, he said the CIA has never fully “concluded that it was the use of EITs within the program that allowed us to obtain useful information from detainees.”
The seeming contradiction shined brightest during a response to a question about the hunt for the al Qaeda leader.
“There was information obtained subsequent to the application of EITs from detainees that was useful in the bin Laden operation,” Mr. Brennan said.
But he then added: “I am not going to attribute that to the use of the EITs. [I am] just going to state, as a matter of fact, the information that they provided was used.”
The Intelligence Committee report, meanwhile, has prompted human rights groups to call for the arrest and trial of key CIA personnel and former Bush administration officials for authorizing the techniques. The U.N.’s special rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights has called for anyone responsible for “systematic crimes” to be brought to justice for violating international laws and treaties designed to bar the use of torture by governments worldwide.
In a response to Mr. Brennan’s remarks Thursday, Mrs. Feinstein suggested such calls may be overkill.
“CIA Director Brennan’s comments were not what I expected,” the senator said. “They showed that CIA leadership is prepared to prevent this from ever happening again, which is all-important.
“Director Brennan also acknowledged that the CIA was not prepared to effectively manage this program when it started and that many mistakes were made as it was implemented,” Mrs. Feinstein said, adding that “perhaps most importantly,” he stated “that the CIA has ‘not concluded that it was the use of EITs within that program that allowed us to obtain useful information from detainees subjected to them.’ “
“This is a welcome change from the CIA’s position in the past that information was obtained as a direct result of EITs,” Mrs. Feinstein said.
However, she added that she disagreed with Mr. Brennan’s assertion that “it is ‘unknowable’ whether information needed to stop terrorist attacks could be obtained from other sources.”
“The report shows that such information in fact was obtained through other means, both traditional CIA human intelligence and from other agencies,” Mrs. Feinstein said.
The measured response came after a string of stinging tweets were posted to the senator’s Twitter account rebutting Mr. Brennan in real time as he delivered his remarks.
Mr. Brennan, meanwhile, appeared relieved Thursday that the enhanced interrogation program died years ago.
He was known in 2009 to have supported Mr. Obama’s suspension of the program and, toward the end of Thursday’s press conference, revealed a personal wariness about its effectiveness.
“I tend to believe that the use of coercive methods has a strong prospect for resulting in false information, because if somebody is being subjected to coercive techniques, they may say something to have those techniques stopped,” Mr. Brennan said.
Moments later, as the event came to a close, the CIA director walked alone through the lobby of the agency’s Langley headquarters, passing the marble wall into which is carved the biblical saying and unofficial CIA motto: “And you shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.”