Brennan's reversal: Enhanced interrogation saved lives

Nearly two years ago, John Brennan faced a confirmation hearing in the friendly, Democrat-controlled Senate, but not one entirely ready to rubber-stamp his nomination to become CIA Director after David Petraeus’ abrupt departure. The Senate Intelligence Committee pressed Brennan for his views on Bush-era enhanced interrogation techniques during his tenure as deputy CIA Director, to which he had previously given mild support. Brennan dutifully retreated from his previous position, claiming that a read of the panel’s draft report had given him pause. “I don’t know what the truth is,” Brennan told the panel and said that he now questioned  his previous briefings on the matter.


That should have given Brennan a wide opening to embrace the report from the panel’s Democratic majority yesterday. Instead, Brennan reversed himself — again — and defended his agency, insisting that the information gathered from EITs stopped terrorist attacks and saved lives:

Now that he leads the CIA, Brennan has returned to his original conclusion: the truth is on his agency’s side. In a statement responding to the public release of the report’s official summary Tuesday, Brennan defended his agency — and the fruits of severe interrogation practices.

Enhanced interrogation techniques “did produce intelligence that helped thwart attack plans, capture terrorists, and save lives, Brennan said, citing an unreleased internal CIA review.

“The intelligence gained from the program,” he added, “was critical to our understanding of al Qaeda and continues to inform our counterterrorism efforts to this day.”

That steps on the message that Democrats wanted to send yesterday — that the Bush era had nothing to do with them, and that any intelligence wins on Barack Obama’s watch were his alone. That’s the entire point of this exercise, after all. Dianne Feinstein and her panel pushed the report out before the Republican majority that voters just elected could stop them from releasing their cherry-picked conclusions.

That’s not just my opinion on the matter. It’s also the opinion of Bob Kerrey, former Democratic Senator from Nebraska, a one-time presidential contender, and most importantly a member of the Senate Intelligence panel during the years in question. Kerrey took to the pages of USA Today to scold his former colleagues for their partisan and political attack on the CIA:


In the war against global jihadism, human intelligence and interrogation have become more important, and I worry that the partisan nature of this report could make this kind of collection more difficult.

I do not need to read the report to know that the Democratic staff alone wrote it. The Republicans checked out early when they determined that their counterparts started out with the premise that the CIA was guilty and then worked to prove it.

After prefacing his statement by hoping that his former colleagues will remain his friends, Kerrey points to the real tell of the report — an utter lack of any guidance going forward for the agency the report shreds:

It is important for all of us to not let Congress dodge responsibility. Congressional oversight of intelligence is notoriously weak. The 9/11 Commission recommended a number of changes in the authorities of Congressional committees but the proposal – advanced by Senator McCain – did not come close to gathering a majority of votes in either the Senate or the House.

The worse consequence of a partisan report can be seen in this disturbing fact: It contains no recommendations. This is perhaps the most significant missed opportunity, because no one would claim the program was perfect or without its problems. But equally, no one with real experience would claim it was the completely ineffective and superfluous effort this report alleges.

That is curious, is it not? Why would such a damning report not include guidance to the agency it oversees on how to proceed with its vital mission in the war against Islamist terrorism? Democrats don’t want to take responsibility for those consequences any more than they want responsibility for interrogation techniques on which their leadership had been fully briefed all along. Now that Republicans will take over the committee as part of their transition to the majority, Democrats wanted to hang this albatross around the GOP’s collective neck and take potshots for not doing anything about it from the cheap seats, beginning next month.


Richard Burr, who will replace Feinstein as chair, makes it clear that he doesn’t intend to do anything with this report at all:

The Senate Intelligence Committee’s report Tuesday on the CIA’s use of torture is unlikely to trigger major policy changes or even official introspection, but it ignited a new uncivil war of words between Republicans and Democrats in Congress that’s likely to last through the 2016 election campaign. …

There was little appetite for new legislation. President Barack Obama banned the controversial practices when he came into office in 2009, and torture itself has been illegal for decades under U.S. law and international treaties that the U.S. has signed.

Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., who will become the Senate Intelligence Committee chairman next month, said he planned no further action.

“I just don’t know what you would accomplish with hearings,” he said. Asked whether he saw any kind of follow-up, Burr said, “No. Put this report down as a footnote in history.”

Democrats had better hope that Burr lives up to his word on this. He could easily change the terms of non-disclosure agreements CIA officials had to sign in order to get briefed on the report and declassify notes from the Congressional briefings during the EIT era. That would allow officials to defend themselves on the record and make clear that Senate Democrats used this as a cheap shot to make themselves look pristine, while celebrating the results that those interrogations allowed.

Update: Jeff Dunetz already has some reminders of who knew and when.


Update: Edited down the excerpt from Kerrey, whose essay should be read in full.

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