WASHINGTON — CIA Director John Brennan stepped to the podium at Langley today for a rare press conference to respond to a report accusing the agency of torture, launching into a passionate defense of the men and women who work there.
Brennan began by walking everyone back to the dark days of 9/11, and reminded all that the first combat death in Afghanistan — Johnny “Mike” Spann, killed on Nov. 25, 2001 — was CIA. Since then, he said, 20 more CIA officers “have lost their lives around the world at the hands of terrorists.”
But he also stressed that the Senate Intelligence Committee Democrats’ report, which said enhanced interrogation techniques were not effective in gleaning useful intelligence, “lacks any foundation at all” in its conclusion.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Brennan said, “Our government and our citizens recognized the urgency of the task to find and stop al-Qaeda before it could shed the blood of more innocent men, women and children, be it in America or be it in any other corner of the world.”
The EIT program was “uncharted territory for the CIA and we were not prepared,” he added. “We had little experience housing detainees and precious few of our officers were trained interrogators… As concerns about Al Qaeda’s terrorist plans endured, a variety of these techniques were employed by CIA officers on several dozen detainees over the course of five years before they ended in December of 2007.”
“The previous administration faced agonizing choices about how to pursue al-Qaeda and prevent additional terrorist attacks against our country while facing fears of further attacks and carrying out the responsibility to prevent more catastrophic loss of life. There were no easy answers. And 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.”
Brennan said the CIA views Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s (D-Calif.) report as “flawed” in its execution, noting that CIA officers were not interviewed by committee investigators.
“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. And we fell short when it came to holding some officers accountable for their mistakes,” he said. “It is vitally important to recognize, however, that the overwhelming majority of officers involved in the program at CIA carried out their responsibilities faithfully and in accordance with the legal and policy guidance they were provided. They did what they were asked to do in the service of our nation.”
Brennan stressed that detainees who were subjected to EITs did yield valuable intelligence, including in finding Osama bin Laden, but he cannot say whether it was the EITs that led the detainees to talk.
“The cause and effect relationship between the use of EITs and useful information subsequently provided by the detainee is, in my view, unknowable,” he said.
He added that the record “simply does not support the study’s inference that the agency repeatedly, systematically and intentionally misled others on the effectiveness of the program.”
“Primarily, however, the study’s contention that we repeatedly and intentionally misled the public and the rest of the U.S. government rests on the committee’s view that detainees subjected to EITs did not produce useful intelligence, a point on which we still fundamentally disagree.”
The longtime CIA veteran — who joined in 1980 and was deputy executive director when al-Qaeda struck the homeland on 9/11 — said one of the “most frustrating aspects” of the study is that it “conveys a broader view of the CIA and its officers as untrustworthy, that the institution and the workforce were willing to forego their integrity in order to preserve a program they were invested in and supposedly believed to be right.”
“This in no way comports with my experience in the CIA. While the agency has a traditional bias for action and a determined focus on achieving our mission, we take exceptional pride in providing truth to power, whether that power likes or agrees with what we believe and what we say or not and regardless of whether that power is affiliated with any particular political party.”
Feinstein was live-tweeting Brennan’s speech, responding to his statements with the hashtag #ReadTheReport.
The senator said in a statement after the speech that Brennan’s uncertainty of which techniques led to actionable intelligence substantiated her report’s claims. “This is a welcome change from the CIA’s position in the past that information was obtained as a direct result of EITs,” Feinstein said.
Yet Brennan also said: “But for someone to say that there was no intelligence of value of use that came from those detainees once they were subjected to EITs, I think that is — lacks any foundation at all.”
Feinstein disagreed that it’s “unknowable” whether the EITs led to the intelligence.
“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 president, Congress and other policymakers must get the facts and intelligence assessments without them being colored by policy views or an effort to hide embarrassing facts.”
“As one who received CIA briefings in 2006 and 2007 about the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques, I know that the CIA did not ‘speak truth to power,’ and that the descriptions of interrogations that were finally provided to the committee did not accurately reflect reality.”
President Obama refused to talk about Brennan today when asked at an Export Council meeting.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters that Obama still has confidence in his CIA director.
“The president is pleased to have — to count him as one of the people who has been a senior member of his national security team since the very beginning of his tenure in office, and the president continues to rely on his advice to this day,” he said.
Earnest said Brennan was at the White House this morning only to participate in the president’s daily briefing. “It’s not particularly unusual for him to do that,” he added.
When asked at the CIA press conference about whether reporters will be back in the same room in several years, faced with a similarly damning report about the Obama administration’s use of drones and civilian deaths, Brennan said he couldn’t talk about current operations.
“I will tell you, though, that during my tenure at the White House, as the president’s assistant for counterterrorism, 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,” he said. “The ability to use these platforms and advanced technologies, it has advanced the counterterrorism mission and the U.S. military has done some wonderful things with these platforms.”
“And in terms of precision of effort, accuracy and making sure that this country, this country’s military does everything possible to minimize to the great extent possible the loss of life of noncombatants, I think there’s a lot for this country and this White House and the military to be proud of.”