CIA Director John Brennan on Thursday moved to defend an agency battered by a devastating report released this week on the use of harsh interrogation techniques while acknowledging what he called “abhorrent” methods that were “outside of the bounds” of approved policy.
In rare televised remarks from the agency’s marble lobby before two dozen senior CIA leaders, Brennan said that valuable information was obtained from detainees subjected to the measures, which included waterboarding and “rectal rehydration.” But, he said, it remains “unknowable” whether conventional questioning alone could have yielded the same intelligence gains.
“Let me be clear,” he said in his first public comments since Tuesday’s release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA detention program. “The cause-and-effect relationship between the use of [harsh tactics] and useful information subsequently provided by the detainee is, in my view, unknowable.”
He added: “Whatever your views are on EITs, our nation and in particular this agency did a lot of things right during this difficult time to keep this country strong and secure,” he said, using the acronym for enhanced interrogation techniques.
While Brennan said some of the tactics were harsh, he refrained from calling them torture, as President Obama had done in banning them on his second day in office. But he acknowledged that the agency made mistakes, saying its officers were unprepared to conduct such a program and in a limited number of cases used techniques that were not authorized and “rightly should be repudiated by all.”
Brennan also acknowledged that the agency “fell short” in holding some officers accountable for their mistakes. But he denied that the agency had “repeatedly, systemically and intentionally” misled top U.S. officials about the program.
Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) applauded Brennan’s acknowledgment that the agency has not concluded that the use of harsh tactics “allowed us to obtain useful information” from detainees. “This is a welcome change from the CIA’s position in the past that information was obtained as a direct result” of such techniques, she said.
She disagreed that it is “unknowable” whether vital intelligence can be obtained through 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 said.
The 528-page document described in searing detail techniques aimed at obtaining information from several dozen detainees held in secret CIA prisons around the world. They included sleep deprivation, slams against cell walls, simulated drowning and stuffing detainees into coffin-sized boxes.
The Senate document, an executive summary of a still-classified report that exceeds 6,000 pages, concluded that such techniques were not effective in cases in which the CIA claimed otherwise, including in the hunt for al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Brennan said the agency did obtain useful information from detainees who were subjected to severe interrogation techniques, but he said he could not conclude that it was a direct result of those methods.
“For someone to say that there was no intelligence of value . . . that came from those detainees once they were subjected to EITs, I think . . . lacks any foundation at all,” he said.
Although he was a senior official while the program was ongoing and had visibility into “some of the activities,” he distanced himself from its actions. “I was not in the chain of command. I did not have authority over the implementation of that program, or the management oversight of it,” he said.
Brennan, a CIA veteran who was deputy executive director at the time of the attacks, appeared to be trying to bolster an agency under renewed fire without playing down the disclosures in the report. Several hundred employees at the agency have been associated with the interrogation and detention program, with many rising to senior leadership positions — including the chief of the Counterterrorism Center.
The agency had fought hard in the months leading up to the report’s release to redact significant details.
Declining to say whether he supported the report’s release, even in the name of transparency, Brennan quipped that the “transparency that has happened over the last couple of days” has been “over the top.”
While critical of the Senate report — he called the investigative process “flawed” — Brennan also tried to find some common ground, saying many aspects of its conclusions “are sound and consistent” with the agency’s prior findings. He said that investigations by the CIA inspector general and internal reviews found fault in the agency’s running of the program, which ended the use of harsh tactics in 2007.
The Justice Department has opened several investigations into the program and has decided not to bring any criminal cases.
Obama has said he believes some of the techniques used by the CIA constituted torture, but he has not supported further criminal investigations into the program. His counterterrorism adviser, Lisa Monaco, said Tuesday that “this is not a time to refight old battles and reopen old debates.”
Speaking at a Bloomberg Government conference, she said the point of the report’s release was to “put a period at the end of this chapter and . . . move on.”
Rights activists said Brennan’s remarks were insufficient.
Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, argued that if officials are not held accountable, the same methods could be used 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,” he said. “We have to ensure that this never happens again.”
Adam Goldman contributed to this report.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that CIA Director John O. Brennan said the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” was the “right” response in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Brennan said: “Whatever your views are on EITs, our nation and in particular this agency did a lot of things right during this difficult time to keep this country strong and secure.”