CIA Chief Won’t Rule Out a Return of Torture Techniques

John Brennan admitted that waterboarding detainees and threatening them with power drills was “abhorrent,” but refused to say it was torture -- or promise it wouldn't be used again.


At an unusual news conference at the CIA’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia, spy chief John Brennan disavowed the agency’s former system for detaining and brutally interrogating terror suspects in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and said some of the methods used were “abhorrent,” but he refused to join President Barack Obama in admitting that they had crossed the line into “torture.”

Asked repeatedly whether waterboarding suspects or threatening them with mock executions led to actionable intelligence, Brennan insisted that the agency couldn’t conclusively say that harsh interrogations produced information that could otherwise not have been obtained.

“The cause-and-effect relationship between the application of those EITs [enhanced interrogation techniques] and ultimate provision of that information” from detainees “is unknown and unknowable,” Brennan said in response to a question. “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 lacks any foundation at all.”

The CIA chief declined to say if a future American president might once again order the use of brutal interrogation methods in a crisis. “I defer to the policymakers in future times when there is going to be the need to be able to ensure that this country stays safe if we face a similar type of crisis,” Brennan said.

Brennan’s ambiguous response immediately led to a rebuttal from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who oversaw a years-long investigation into the CIA’s torture practices. The report, released Tuesday, concluded that the agency had systematically exaggerated the value of the intelligence gained through torture and misled Capitol Hill and the White House about its brutality and effectiveness.

“Future president could reverse executive order, reinstate EIT program. Legislation is needed,” Feinstein responded on her Twitter account, even as Brennan was speaking from the podium, setting up an unusual real-time back-and-forth between the spy agency chief and the CIA’s top Senate overseer. “‘Useful information’ was not the legal policy standard for EITs,” Feinstein tweeted.

One member of Congress has already previewed plans to introduce legislation that would ban the practice of torture. “We must prohibit torture by law once and for all,” Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) said Tuesday. The bill, called the American Anti-Torture Act, would make the Army Field Manual, which rules out the use of torture, the standard for all interrogations.

However, it’s far from certain that such a bill would gain traction in next year’s GOP-controlled legislature.

The Senate report included harrowing and stomach-turning details of the CIA’s torture program, which included forcibly feeding prisoners through their rectum, hanging them by their hands for days chained to overhead rods, and threatening to rape and kill their mothers. In one case, a detainee died of hypothermia after being left in a freezing-cold dungeon. But Brennan said that the fatalities were largely the result of a few bad actors going outside the bounds of prescribed techniques.

“I look back at the record and I see that this is a workforce that was trying to do the right thing,” Brennan said. But still, “I cannot say with certainty whether or not individuals acted with complete honesty,” he said about some officers who may have misled Congress and other U.S. officials. Brennan criticized the Senate committee for not interviewing CIA officials who ran the interrogation program when it functioned and instead relying only on memos and documents to compile the report.

Pressed by a reporter to answer if a future American president could turn to the now discredited techniques, Brennan said the CIA was out of the business of detentions.

“What happens in the future? The Army Field Manual is the established basis for interrogation,” Brennan said, referring to the September 2006 Army manual titled “Human Intelligence Collector Operations,” which prohibits “acts of physical or mental torture” meted out to captured prisoners. “We, the CIA are not in the detention program, we are not contemplating at all getting back into detention program, using any of those EITs. I defer to policymakers in [the] future,” Brennan said.

In 2009 when Obama ordered the closing of the CIA’s detention and interrogation program, the agency gave up its formal role in interrogations. Obama also ordered the creation of the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group also known as HIG, which includes experts from several U.S. intelligence agencies but is overseen by the National Security Council.

In some areas, Brennan went further in acknowledging CIA missteps than he has before, particularly when it comes to letting specific CIA officers involved in the program off the hook. “We fell short when it came to holding some officers accountable for their mistakes,” he said.

The Senate report noted multiple instances where CIA leadership refused to punish officers who severely abused detainees, even when that behavior was specifically called out. “On two occasions in which the CIA inspector general identified wrongdoing, accountability recommendations were overruled by senior CIA leadership. In one instance, involving the death of a CIA detainee,” reads the report.

Some of those agents have since retired, but when asked why Brennan couldn’t begin holding the remaining officers accountable now, a CIA officer told Foreign Policy that the time has passed. “We can’t go back in time,” said spokesman Preston Golson. “Should there have been more accountability? You can arguably say yes.” He noted that individual agents have been subject to accountability review boards, and that revisiting that process, in some cases, would amount to double jeopardy.

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Gopal Ratnam is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy, covering the White House, the Pentagon and broader national security issues. A native of India,Gopal has covered topics ranging from child-labor law violations and the automotive industry to the international arms trade, the politics of weapons purchases, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has reported from dozens of countries, including Iraq and Afghanistan. Most recently he was the Pentagon reporter for Bloomberg News. Twitter: @g_ratnam