Torture Report: CIA Director John Brennan Defends Agency

PHOTO: Director of the Central Intelligence Agency John Brennan speaks at a press conference in Washington, Dec. 11, 2014.PlayABC News
WATCH America's Spy Chief Defends CIA

Central Intelligence Agency Director John Brennan today addressed the revelations contained in a comprehensive report released this week about the agency’s use of enhanced interrogation methods from 2002 to 2009, calling some of the techniques "abhorrent” but defending the program overall.

The report, written over five years by the Democratic members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, accused the CIA of using unauthorized interrogation techniques to extract information from detainees, including using power drills, mock executions, forced-feeding and threats against their families.

PHOTO: Outside CIA Headquarters in Langley, Va. Charles Ommanney/Getty Images
Outside CIA Headquarters in Langley, Va.

In his opening remarks at an unusual live news conference this afternoon, Brennan said the United States looked to the CIA to provide guidance on how to deal with al Qaeda in the chaotic days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“As has been the case throughout its then-54 year history, CIA was looked to for answers,” he said. “Not only to the questions on the threats we faced but also to questions about what we were going to do to stop future attacks.”

Brennan said that the agency was ill-prepared for the task it was given, calling the interrogation program “uncharted territory” and adding that the agency had little experience housing and interrogating detainees.

“This was a workforce that was trying to do the right thing," he said.

The study asserted the torture methods did not yield information from detainees that could not have been acquired in other ways, and that the CIA misled the Bush administration about what exactly the enhanced interrogation program was.

Brennan did not deliver a full-throated defense of the CIA's use of enhanced interrogation techniques, but rather said it was unclear whether or not their use led to crucial information in the hunt for Osama bin Laden and other terrorists.

“Let me be clear: We have not concluded that it was the EITs within that program that allowed us to obtain useful information from the detainees subjected to them,” he said.

He did, however, call some of those techniques "abhorrent.”

Brennan also revealed his personal belief that “the use of coercive methods has a strong prospect for resulting in false information because if somebody’s been subjected to coercive techniques, they may say something to have those techniques stopped.”

Most of the Republican members of the Senate Intelligence Committee signed on to a minority report that disputed many of the majority’s conclusions, saying that enhanced interrogation techniques did, in fact, lead to actionable intelligence in key terrorism cases like the capture of the mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

Brennan would not say whether he agreed with the Obama administration’s decision to make a summary of the full Senate report public. When pressed to share his belief in the interest of transparency, Brennan responded that the level of transparency in the past days has been “over the top.”

Brennan’s defense Thursday was a departure from comments he made at his confirmation hearing in 2013 after reading a version of the report that had not yet been released to the public. At the time, he questioned the efficacy of the CIA’s torture methods.

“Reading this report from the Committee raises serious questions about the information that I was given at the time, and the impression I had at the time,” he said. “Now I have to determine, based on that information, as well as what CIA says, what the truth is.”

Brennan, who has had a long CIA career, acknowledged today that as deputy executive director of the agency at the time the interrogation techniques were implemented, he was aware of the program and had “some visibility” into its specifics. But, he also made clear he did not have any management oversight responsibilities related to the program.

In defending the CIA’s interrogation program, Brennan has joined former CIA directors George Tenet, Porter Goss and Michael Hayden, who wrote a 2,500-word rebuttal in the Wall Street Journal this week.

Brennan said the Senate committee should have interviewed CIA officers who worked in these programs because, he said, simply reviewing documents was not enough.

“I wish the committee took the opportunity to ask CIA officers who were involved in the program at the time, ‘what were you thinking? What did you consider?’” Brennan said. “This was a workforce that was trying to do the right thing.”

With his agency facing intense scrutiny, Brennan emphasized that the CIA “is determined to look forward.”