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CIA chief defends interrogations but regrets 'abhorrent' abuses

AFP

In the wake of a Senate report criticising harsh interrogation tactics, CIA Director John Brennan said Thursday that some officers did “abhorrent” things to terror suspects but defended the Bush-era interrogations for yielding “valuable” information.

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Speaking Thursday during an unprecedented news conference televised from the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) at Langley, Virginia, Brennan said that while there was no doubt that detainees subjected to harsh interrogation methods offered “useful and valuable” information, it remained “unknown and unknowable” whether the practice yielded crucial intelligence that could have been gained in any other way.

A Senate intelligence report released this week documented the harsh interrogation methods faced by detainees under former president George W. Bush in the era following the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States. US President Barack Obama banned “enhanced interrogation techniques” (EITs) when he took office in 2009.

“Our reviews indicate that the detention and interrogation program produced useful intelligence that helped the United States thwart attack plans, capture terrorists and save lives,” Brennan told the news conference at Langley.

“But let me be clear. We have not concluded that it was the use of EITs within that programme that allowed us to obtain useful information from detainees subjected to them,” Brennan said.

“The cause-and-effect relationship between the use of EITs and useful information subsequently provided by the detainee is, in my view, unknowable."

Brennan, a career CIA analyst, acknowledged that mistakes were made when the agency took captured al Qaeda operatives to secret prisons and began using unauthorised methods in an effort to break them.

“In a limited number of cases, agency officers used interrogation techniques that had not been authorised, were abhorrent and rightly should be repudiated by all,” he said.

“And we fell short when it came to holding some officers accountable for their mistakes.”

But he also noted that, "The overwhelming majority of officers involved in the programme at CIA carried out their responsibilities faithfully ... They did what they were asked to do in the service of our nation.”

Although the harshest interrogations were carried out in 2002 and 2003, the programme continued until December 2007, Brennan said. In all, 39 detainees were subject to very harsh measures.

‘Regrettable’

Brennan said the use of such harsh techniques was “regrettable” but declined to define them as “torture” – as both Obama and the Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman have done.

“I certainly agree that there were times when CIA officers exceeded the policy guidance that was given and the authorised techniques that were approved and determined to be lawful,” he said. “They went outside of the bounds. ... I will leave to others to how they might want to label those activities. But for me, it was something that is certainly regrettable.”

But Brennan also made a distinction between interrogation methods such as waterboarding – which were approved by the Justice Department at the time – and those that were not, including “rectal feeding”, death threats and beatings. He did not discuss the techniques by name.

But Brennan defended the overall detention of 119 suspects as having produced valuable intelligence that, among other things, helped the CIA find and kill al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

The 500-page Senate Intelligence Committee report released Tuesday exhaustively cites CIA records to dispute that contention. The report points out that the CIA justified the torture – what the report called an extraordinary departure from American practices and values – as necessary to produce unique and otherwise unobtainable intelligence.

The report said that over a period of years, agency officials told the White House, the Justice Department and Congress that the techniques had elicited crucial information that thwarted dangerous plots. Yet the report goes on to argue that such torture actually failed to produce any intelligence that the CIA couldn’t have obtained, or didn’t already have, from elsewhere.

Former CIA officials, including George Tenet, who signed off on the interrogations as then director, have argued in recent days that the techniques themselves were both effective and justified.

‘We were not prepared’

Brennan’s more nuanced position puts him in harmony with the anti-torture Obama White House while attempting to mollify the CIA officers involved in the programme who still work for him.

Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, the Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman whose staff wrote the report, conducted a live-tweeting point-by-point rebuttal of Brennan’s news conference, at one point saying the CIA director’s stance was inconsistent with the original justification for the brutal interrogations.

“EIT authority (was) based on vital, otherwise unavailable intel,” she tweeted during Brennan’s remarks. “Not ‘useful information’.”

Brennan criticised the Senate investigation, saying it was “lamentable” that the committee interviewed no CIA personnel to ask, “What were you thinking?”

Seeking to put the controversy in context, Brennan stressed that the CIA after the attacks of September 11 was in “uncharted territory”, having been handed vast new authorities by a president determined to thwart the next al Qaeda attack.

“We were not prepared,” said Brennan, who was deputy CIA executive officer at the time. “We had little experience housing detainees, and precious few of our officers were trained interrogators.”

(FRANCE 24 with AP and REUTERS)

 

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