As Washington awaits the release of the highly classified probe into the CIA's torture program, John Brennan's integrity is being questioned just when the agency needs it most.
- By Shane Harris
Shane Harris is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy, covering intelligence and cyber security. He is the author of The Watchers: The Rise of America's Surveillance State, which chronicles the creation of a vast national security apparatus and the rise of surveillance in America. The Watchers won the New York Public Library’s Helen Bernstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism, and the Economist named it one of the best books of 2010. Shane is the winner of the Gerald R. Ford Prize for Distinguished Reporting on National Defense. He has four times been named a finalist for the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists, which honor the best journalists in America under the age of 35. Prior to joining Foreign Policy, he was the senior writer for The Washingtonian and a staff correspondent at National Journal., Elias GrollElias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy, covering cybersecurity, privacy, and intelligence.
John Brennan’s week has gone from bad to worse. The CIA director was already bracing for the imminent release of a 600-page Senate report that, as the world already knows, accuses the CIA of torturing suspected terrorists and misleading Congress about it. Then Brennan was forced to apologize for CIA employees who spied on the very Senate staff investigating his agency — an allegation he emphatically denied for months — following a scathing report by the agency’s own inspector general.
Brennan’s credibility is now at a moment of supreme crisis. At stake is his reputation not only with his congressional overseers, but with a public that is about to read, in vivid detail, how the CIA brutally interrogated detainees, failed to gather any useful intelligence that could stop a terrorist attack in doing so, and then tried to cover up its actions.
Brennan has a thorny, two-pronged problem. First, he’ll have to defend his agency against the inevitable onslaught of criticism that will accompany the torture report’s release, which could be next week. Second, he must explain his dismissal of the accusations of his chief overseer, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who in a blistering floor speech in March accused the CIA of running roughshod over the Constitution by monitoring her staff’s computers and removing documents that they were entitled to read.
Responding to Feinstein then, Brennan all but said it would be crazy to think the CIA would so foolishly undermine the most aggressive and politically charged investigation into the agency’s counterterrorism programs. "Nothing could be further from the truth," Brennan said at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington on March 11, just a few hours after Feinstein blasted the agency. "I mean, we wouldn’t do that. I mean, that’s just beyond the scope of reason in terms of what we would do."
Not so much. On Thursday, July 31, Feinstein said that Brennan apologized to her this week for the CIA employees’ actions, as described in the inspector general’s report. "These are positive first steps," Feinstein said in a statement, without noting whether she accepted Brennan’s apology. The veteran lawmaker added that she expects a declassified version of the inspector general’s report "will be made available to the public shortly." Perhaps just in time to accompany the Senate’s torture report.
It’s a bad day for any senior administration official who has to walk back an emphatic public pronouncement and then prostrate himself before lawmakers. But Brennan is no ordinary official. He is arguably President Barack Obama’s most trusted national security advisor and the head of the most powerful institution in the U.S. intelligence community. Brennan helps decide who lives and dies in drone strikes. He oversees a clandestine network of spies around the world.
But he also has his own tortured history with the interrogation program. He withdrew his name for consideration to lead the CIA in 2008 amid questions about how directly involved he was in the interrogation of suspected terrorists. In April of this year, after the Senate Intelligence Committee voted to declassify its findings, Brennan convened a meeting at CIA headquarters of former agency directors and officials who worked on the program to plan a "counterattack," the New York Times reported. Former CIA Director George Tenet, to whom Brennan owes much of his success rising up the career ladder at the spy agency, led the discussion. Word of the secret strategy session only gave more ammunition to Brennan’s and the CIA’s critics, who have long accused the agency of covering up its top officials’ involvement in the brutal treatment of detainees.
"While former CIA officials may be working to hide their own past wrongs, there’s no reason Brennan or any other current CIA official should help facilitate the defense of the indefensible," Christopher Anders, the senior legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, told the Times.
The CIA inspector general’s report won’t be the last word about the agency’s interference with Congress, where Brennan’s support among Democratic lawmakers appeared to be in jeopardy Thursday.
"I am concerned about the director’s apparent inability to find any flaws in the agency he leads," Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), a member of the Intelligence Committee, said in a statement. "Earlier this year he referred to the chairman’s and my publicly stated concerns about the CIA search [of staff computers] as ‘spurious allegations that are wholly unsupported by facts’ and urged us to ‘refrain from outbursts.’ Brennan needs to account for these statements." Udall also said the administration should appoint an independent counsel "to look into what I believe could be the violation of multiple provisions of the Constitution as well as federal criminal statutes" — and an executive order that governs intelligence activities.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), another Intelligence Committee member, called on Brennan to publicly apologize for the CIA’s actions. "The CIA Inspector General has confirmed what Senators have been saying all along: The CIA conducted an unauthorized search of Senate files, and attempted to have Senate staff prosecuted for doing their jobs," Wyden said. "Director Brennan’s claims to the contrary were simply not true."
The CIA didn’t immediately respond to questions about whether Brennan planned to say anything about the latest uproar. An agency spokesperson told the Guardian that Brennan has no plans to resign.
In an earlier statement sent to reporters, Brennan’s chief spokesperson, Dean Boyd, said that the CIA director "is committed to correcting any shortcomings related to this matter" and that he is convening an accountability board — an internal CIA disciplinary proceeding — chaired by former Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), who served on the Intelligence Committee.
That may help determine why the CIA gave Congress and the public assurances that proved false. But it does little to help Brennan and his agency as they prepare, yet again, to defend themselves from allegations of torture and lying. The CIA director’s integrity is now on the line, just when the agency needs it the most.