This afternoon CIA Director John Brennan gave a rare press conference at Langley Headquarters to address the Senate’s recently-released summary of its report on the Agency’s Rendition, Detention and Interrogation Program.
In a short introductory speech, Brennan evoked the panic and confusion caused by the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, which plunged the US into a “seemingly never-ending war” against terrorism. When asked by President Bush to detain terror suspects, CIA was at first unprepared for the task. “Precious few of our officers were trained interrogators,” Brennan told reporters.
He insisted that the Bush Justice Department had determined EITs to be “lawful”, but acknowledged that the CIA’s conduct of the program was a “legitimate oversight issue”. Despite criticizing the Senate’s methodology – failing to interview Agency personnel, in particular – he nonetheless praised the Committee for its efforts in sorting through “millions of documents”. Many aspects of their conclusions were “sound and consistent with our own prior findings”, he said, accepting that some Agency staff had used “abhorrent methods” in excess of the “guidance issued” by CIA.
However, he refrained from referring to the CIA’s actions as torture, telling one reporter that he would “leave it to others” how they want to “label those activities”. Asked about his own involvement in the EIT program – as Deputy Executive Director on 9/11 – Brennan said he “was aware” of the program but had no “management oversight” role.
Brennan conceded that CIA did not hold some officers accountable for violations, saying that “we simply failed to live up to the standards that we set for ourselves”. However, he assured reporters that reforms had been made to ensure “those mistakes never happen again”. He took issue with the Senate’s finding that the Agency had systematically misled White House and the Congress, while acknowledging that briefings needed improvement. The Senate’s report suggested there might have been more detainees subjected to waterboarding than the three previously confirmed. Asked if he could “categorically say” there were only three such cases, Brennan said that, to the best of his knowledge, three was the correct number.
He insisted the RDI program produced valuable intelligence that led to Osama Bin Laden, although it was ultimately “unknowable” if this information could have been acquired through other means. He believes that “non-coercive” methods of interrogation are sufficient and do not compromise US “national security and international standing”. When asked by a reporter if CIA would consider resuscitating the program, he said the Agency no longer detained suspects and had no plans to reintroduce EITs. However, he said he deferred “to the policymakers in future times when there is going to be the need to ensure that this country stays safe”, prompting this tweet from MSNBC‘s Chris Hayes:
Brennan unequivocally leaving the door open to torturing in the future.
— Christopher Hayes (@chrislhayes) December 11, 2014
Questions were largely general in scope, and avoided specific details in the report. For example, no one asked Brennan if CIA had in fact provided the Justice Department with misleading information when it assessed the legality of the techniques, as the summary alleges. And Daily Beast‘s Josh Rogin tweeted:
In a statement posted to her website the Committee’s Chairman Dianne Feinstein commented: “CIA Director Brennan’s comments were not what I expected. They showed that CIA leadership is prepared to prevent this from ever happening again—which is all-important.” But, she added, “I disagree 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.” She also live tweeted throughout his presentation, using the hashtag #ReadTheReport:
ACLU Director Anthony Romero responded to the press conference on the group’s website:
“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. 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. We have to ensure that this never happens again.”
And Amnesty International’s Naureen Shah commented:
“Words like these do not reflect the full gravity of torture and enforced disappearances. They downgrade this program of systematic human rights violations to a series of unforeseen complications. They make torture seem like a bad choice – instead of the crime that it is.”
In a story just out this evening McClatchy’s star intelligence correspondent, Jonathan Landay, reports:
“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.”