Tortured Explanation

John Brennan’s Tortured Defense of the CIA’s Torture Program

Trying to defend what many call indefensible, the CIA director was in a stress position of his own making in today’s press conference.

12.11.14 11:35 PM ET

Some of the CIA’s harshest interrogation techniques were “abhorrent” and “regrettable,” but future presidents must decide whether to use them again, according to CIA Director John Brennan. And, he says, while no one can prove that torture produced valuable information, no one can prove it didn’t, either.

Welcome to the exquisite hell of being director of the Central Intelligence Agency today. Brutality must be rejected as a “mistake,” but simultaneously preserved as a possible policy option. Inhuman abuses are the fault of a few bad actors, who were never punished for their work in CIA dungeons and who tarnished the reputation of an entire agency. And, finally, the central question of whether harsh, coercive tactics actually produced information that couldn’t be obtained any other way is, in Brennan’s words, “unknowable.”

On Thursday, in a rare press conference at CIA headquarters responding to the scathing report by Senate Democrats on the CIA’s torture program, Brennan was asked whether he or a future director would consider using brutal interrogations again, perhaps in the face of an imminent attack. Brennan didn’t rule it out. He said he would “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.”

That’s hardly a refutation of the CIA’s interrogation program, nor is it counsel to avoid using torture after another terrorist attack. While Brennan stressed that the CIA is no longer using so-called enhanced interrogation techniques, or EITs, and that the agency isn’t in the business of detaining terrorist suspects, his decision not to forswear now-banned tactics underscores the difficulty Brennan has had defending the actions his agency took after the 9/11 attacks, while also supporting the policies of the current administration. It’s not quite the same as saying that the CIA was just following orders. But Brennan punted to his bosses on what those orders should be—even though the CIA now has far more experience with the pitfalls of interrogations than any agency in the government, and would presumably have a lot to say on whether to try torture again.

Brennan tried to walk a tightrope, defending his workforce’s intentions but not endorsing everything the CIA did; supporting President Obama while at the same time refuting a report by Democrats, whose investigation is being attacked by Brennan’s former colleagues as a one-sided witchhunt.

“Our reviews indicate that the detention and interrogation program produced useful intelligence that helped the United States thwart attacks, capture terrorists, and save lives,” Brennan said. “But let me be clear. We have not concluded that it was the use of EITs within that program that allowed us to obtain useful information from detainees subjected to them.”

Brennan did come tantalizingly close to saying that the CIA never should have tortured people in the first place. “I tend to believe that the use of coercive methods has a strong prospect for resulting in false information, because if somebody is being subjected to coercive techniques they may say something to have those techniques stopped.” Brennan said there are other “effective, non-coercive methods” to elicit information, “methods that do not have a counterproductive impact on our national security and our international standing.” For that reason, he supported Obama’s decision to prohibit the use of EITs.

But take them off the table forever? Not for Brennan to decide, even though some interrogations that used techniques unauthorized by the Justice Department were “abhorrent, and rightly should be repudiated by all.” Brennan didn’t specify which ones crossed the line, but Senate Democrats found that some detainees had been force-fed through their rectums, which wasn’t on the list of approved measures, and others had been forced to stand on broken limbs.

Brennan’s lengthy remarks, which began by recalling the terror and chaos of the days following the 9/11 attacks when President Bush authorized the CIA to start detaining suspected terrorists, will probably do little to please either critics or supporters of the agency. He acknowledged that the CIA was “unprepared to conduct a detention and interrogation program, and our officers inadequately developed and monitored its initial activities.” But he insisted that CIA employees had tried their best, all the while believing that another attack was around the corner. The few who came up short shouldn’t diminish the work of the agency as a whole, he said.

In what will surely be seen as the highest-profile speech the CIA director has ever given, Brennan sought to please each constituency he answers to: the president, the Congress, his own employees, and the public. But there will never be consensus on whether torture was right or wrong, effective or not. And Brennan seemed to know it.