Most of the information in a July intelligence report on the terrorist threat to America came from the U.S. government's much-criticized program of detaining and interrogating prisoners, CIA Director Gen. Michael Hayden said Friday in defending the policy.
The CIA has detained fewer than 100 people at secret facilities abroad since the capture of Abu Zubaydah in 2002, Hayden told the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City, according to an advance copy of his speech.
He staunchly defended the program, saying even fewer prisoners have been rendered to or from foreign governments.
The CIA director said 70 percent of the information contained in the National Intelligence Estimate on the terrorist threat, which was released in July, came from the interrogation of detainees.
Hayden: Rendition claims misleading
Hayden said claims by the European Parliament that at least 1,245 CIA flights transited European airspace or airports are misleading because they implied that most of those flights were rendition flights.
"The actual number of rendition flights ever flown by CIA is a tiny fraction of that. And the suggestion that even a substantial number of those 1,245 flights were carrying detainees is absurd on its face," he said.
Hayden said many flights carried equipment, documents and people, including himself, and had nothing to do with the extraordinary rendition program.
The use of extraordinary rendition for terror suspects — some of whom were later released, apparently because they were innocent — was revealed by news media in 2005.
Extraordinary rendition refers to the interrogation policy involving the secret transfer of prisoners from U.S. control into the hands of foreign governments, some of which have a history of torture. The United States government says it does so only after it is assured that transferred prisoners will not be subjected to torture.
The renditions have been "conducted lawfully, responsibly, and with a clear and simple purpose: to get terrorists off the streets and gain intelligence on those still at large," Hayden said.
Hayden: Leaks harm national security
He said Friday that such leaks to news organizations harm national security.
Hayden said that in one case, news leaks gave a foreign government information that allowed it to prosecute and jail one of the CIA's sources.
"The revelations had an immediate, chilling effect on our ability to collect against a top-priority target," he said.
Hayden said other media reports "cost us several promising counterterrorism and counterproliferation assets" because CIA sources stopped cooperating out of fear they would be exposed.
He said "more than one" foreign government's intelligence services have withheld intelligence that they otherwise would have shared with the U.S. government because they feared it would be leaked.
"That gap in information puts Americans at risk," Hayden said, according to the written remarks.
He said "a lot" of what has been reported about CIA interrogations has been false.
Hayden said that journalists should stick to "exposing al-Qaida and its adherents for what they are."
"Revelations of sources and methods — and an impulse to drag anything CIA does to the darkest corner of the room — can make it very difficult for us to do our vital work," he said.