The Cable

CIA Chief: We Won’t Torture, Even If Ordered To

John Brennan says he'll never go along with waterboarding.


The U.S.-led military campaign against the Islamic State is failing to limit the extremist group’s ability to carry out terror attacks around the world, CIA Director John Brennan admitted Thursday. Despite presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump’s demands, Brennan said that does not justify bringing back so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” — the CIA’s euphemism for torture.

In the wake of deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris and Brussels and massacres inspired by the group in Orlando and San Bernardino, Trump has called for removing limits on the interrogation methods available to the CIA. “They can chop off heads or drown people in heavy steel cages and we can’t waterboard,” Trump said in the aftermath of the March 22 bombings in Brussels. “We have to change our laws so we can fight at least on an almost equal basis.”

When asked Thursday how he would respond if he was ordered by a future president to bring back interrogation methods that amount to torture, Brennan said he would flatly refuse. The question from Democratic Sen Ron Wyden of Oregon seemed to clearly be about Trump’s pro-torture stance, but neither  Wyden nor Brennan explicitly mentioned the mogul by name. “I certainly, while I am director of CIA, have no intention of bringing such a program back and would not engage in EITs such as waterboarding and other things — ever,” Brennan told Wyden.

Immediately after taking office in January 2009, President Barack Obama banned the use of torture in interrogations. The policy reform was shaped in part by Brennan, who worked on the incoming president’s intelligence transition team and then served as his top homeland security aide in the White House.

Earlier this week, the CIA declassified a series of transcripts that describe in graphic detail the agency’s interrogation methods.

But nearly 15 years after the 9/11 attacks, the politics on torture may be shifting amid a resilient terrorist threat in the Islamic State. During his testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee, Brennan said the Islamic State is likely plotting additional attacks against the West.

“We judge that ISIL is training and attempting to deploy operatives for further attacks,” he said, using an alternate name for the extremist group based in Syria and Iraq. “ISIL has a large cadre of Western fighters who could potentially serve as operatives for attacks in the West. And the group is probably exploring a variety of means for infiltrating operatives into the West, including refugee flows, smuggling routes, and legitimate methods of travel.”

While the U.S.-led campaign has won territorial gains against the Islamic State and has reduced its income, that effort has “not reduced the group’s terrorism capability and global reach,” Brennan said.

“The resources needed for terrorism are very modest, and the group would have to suffer even heavier losses of territory, manpower, and money for its terrorist capacity to decline significantly,” Brennan said. “In fact, as the pressure mounts on ISIL, we judge that it will intensify its global terror campaign to maintain its dominance of the global terrorism agenda.”

Echoing statements by other administration officials, Brennan said his agency has found no evidence that a foreign terrorist group helped direct last Sunday’s attack on a gay club in Orlando that killed 49. The gunman, identified by authorities as Omar Mateen, reportedly pledged allegiance to the Islamic State’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, before carrying out the massacre.

As the United States and its allies have stepped up pressure on Baghdadi and his group, Russia has moved to bolster its ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, by deploying troops and planes to Syria. Brennan said Thursday that Syrian and Russian forces have in the last two weeks carried out airstrikes in and around Aleppo at a pace that exceeded totals seen before a February cessation of hostilities agreement. That agreement, Brennan said, “is holding by a thread.”

Russia has put in place a two-day ceasefire in Aleppo and on Thursday called for a long-term end to hostilities there. Humanitarian groups have urgently called for an end to fighting in the city, which is the site of what they describe as a humanitarian disaster plagued by indiscriminate violence.

Amid this intense unrest in the Middle East, the United States has struck a landmark nuclear agreement with Iran. Asked on Thursday whether the CIA judges that Iran is complying with that deal, Brennan said, “So far, so good.”

And asked whether a September agreement between China and the United States has ended the theft of intellectual property through hacking, Brennan was blunt in his answer: “No.” But, he said, the Chinese government is showing signs it is following through on its commitments in that agreement.


Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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