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Some CIA officers employed interrogation tactics that were “abhorrent” in the years after Sept. 11, but the agency “did a lot of things right” to keep the country safe at an agonizing time, Director John Brennan said Thursday.
In an extraordinary press conference for the leader of a secretive arm of government, Brennan stressed that CIA officers were acting under Bush administration guidance that harsh techniques were legal. He said that some officers went too far, but that most followed the rules.
“In a limited number of cases, agency officers used interrogation techniques that had not been authorized, were abhorrent and rightly should be repudiated by all,” Brennan said.
But he added: “The overwhelming majority of officers involved in the program at CIA carried out their responsibilities faithfully and in accordance with the legal and policy guidance they were provided. They did what they were asked to do in the service of our nation.”
Brennan began his remarks with a stark recounting of the terrorist attacks — the first words he spoke were, “It was 8:46 a.m. on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001” — and underscored the fear at the time of follow-up strikes.
“Our nation ached, it cried, and it prayed,” he said. “Never again, we vowed. Never again. But al Qaeda had other ideas.”
Brennan sidestepped a question about whether the interrogation tactics — which included simulated drowning, beatings and confinement in coffin-sized boxes — amounted to torture. President Barack Obama, and United Nations officials have said that some of the tactics did.
The CIA leader also said that it was “unknowable” whether extreme interrogation tactics directly led to the extraction of useful intelligence.
He said that information from detainees who were subjected to harsh interrogation helped lead to the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011, but he was careful to say that it was impossible to know whether the techniques themselves could be credited.
In a long-awaited report issued Tuesday, the intelligence committee said that the interrogation program was far harsher than the CIA had suggested. It also said that the program was ineffective, and that CIA officials misled Congress, the White House and the public for years about details.
While Brennan was speaking, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. and the chair of the intelligence committee, offered a point-by-point rebuttal on her Twitter feed.
The CIA’s interrogation program was ended in 2007, and Obama banned the harsh techniques shortly after taking office in 2009. Brennan said that he supported that decision. He has led the agency since March 2013.
Brennan said that he was committed to improving the CIA.
“In light of the fact that these techniques were abandoned seven years ago, however, my fervent hope is that we can put aside this debate and move forward to focus on issues relevant to our current national security challenges,” he said.