CIA director John Brennan acknowledged on Thursday that his spooks had done “abhorrent” things to captured terror suspects and admitted he couldn’t prove harsh treatment had made them co-operate.
But he defended the post-September 11 2011 interrogation programme, claiming that it had stopped attacks and saved lives.
That was the case that Mr Brennan attempted to make during an unprecedented televised news conference from CIA headquarters.
At the heart of Mr Brennan’s remarks was a delicately nuanced argument, that while today’s CIA takes no position on whether the brutal interrogation tactics themselves led detainees to co-operate, there was no doubt that detainees offered “useful and valuable” information afterwards.
Mr Brennan claimed it was “unknown and unknowable” whether the harsh treatment yielded crucial intelligence that could have been gained in any other way.
And Washington’s head spook attempted all this without once using the word “torture” in over 40 minutes of remarks and answers.
He appeared to draw a distinction between interrogation methods such as waterboarding, which were approved by the Justice Department at the time, and others that were not, such as “rectal feeding,” death threats and beatings.
“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 them. But for me, it was something that is certainly regrettable.”
But Mr Brennan still defended the overall detention of 119 suspects as having produced valuable intelligence that, among other things, helped the CIA find and kill al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.
And all this was despite the 500-page Senate intelligence committee report released on Tuesday, which exhaustively cites CIA records to dispute and invalidate that contention.
The report pointed out that the CIA justified the torture as necessary to produce unique and otherwise unobtainable intelligence. But even Mr Brennan could not bring himself to use such terms.
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