CIA Director John Brennan struck back at a U.S. Senate report that accused the agency of torturing terror detainees, acknowledging that "abhorrent" tactics were used but defending the overall interrogation program for saving lives after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
Brennan conceded that it was "unknown and unknowable" whether the harsh treatment during George W. Bush's presidency yielded crucial intelligence that could have been gained in any other way. But he said there is no doubt that detainees subjected to the treatment offered "useful and valuable" information afterward.
Speaking in an unprecedented televised news conference, Brennan was responding to a Senate intelligence committee report that concluded that the CIA inflicted suffering on al-Qaeda prisoners beyond its legal authority.
The report said that none of the agency's "enhanced interrogations" provided crucial information. It cited the CIA's own records, documenting in detail how waterboarding and lesser-known techniques such as "rectal feeding" were actually employed.
Brennan declined to define the techniques as torture, as President Barack Obama and the Senate intelligence committee have done, refraining from even using the word in his 40 minutes of remarks and answers. Obama banned torture when he took office.
The CIA chief also appeared to draw a distinction between interrogation methods, such as water boarding, that 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.
"I certainly agree that there were times when CIA officers exceeded the policy guidance that was given and the authorized 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 defended the overall detention of 119 detainees 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 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. Those are not terms Brennan used Thursday to describe the intelligence derived from the program.
The report makes clear that agency officials for years told the White House, the Justice Department and Congress that the techniques themselves had elicited crucial information that thwarted dangerous plots.
Yet the report argues that torture failed to produce intelligence that the CIA couldn't have obtained, or didn't already have, elsewhere.
Although the harshest interrogations were carried out in 2002 and 2003, the program continued until December 2007, Brennan acknowledged. All told, 39 detainees were subject to very harsh measures.
Former CIA officials, including George Tenet, who signed off on the interrogations as director, have argued in recent days that the techniques themselves were effective and justified.
Brennan's more nuanced position puts him in harmony with an anti-torture White House while attempting to mollify the many CIA officers involved in the program who still work for him.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the Democratic intelligence committee chairman whose staff wrote the report, using the hashtag #ReadtheReport, conducted a live-tweeting point-by-point rebuttal of Brennan's news conference, at one point saying that Brennan's stance was inconsistent with the original justification for the brutal interrogations.
Brennan criticized the Senate investigation, saying, for example, 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 Sept. 11, 2001, 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."
In starker terms than CIA officials have used previously, Brennan, a career CIA analyst, acknowledged mistakes when the agency took captured al-Qaeda operatives to secret prisons and began using brutal methods in an effort to break them.
"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," he said.
But he also said, "The overwhelming majority of officers involved in the program at CIA carried out their responsibilities faithfully. ... They did what they were asked to do in the service of our nation."
Brennan denied that the CIA intentionally misled lawmakers.
The Senate report does not urge prosecution for wrongdoing, and the U.S. Justice Department has no interest in reopening a criminal probe.
But the threat to former interrogators and their superiors was underlined Wednesday as a U.N. special investigator demanded those responsible for "systematic crimes" be brought to justice, and human rights groups pushed for the arrest of key CIA and Bush administration figures if they travel overseas.
The Associated Press