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Brennan strikes back at scathing CIA interrogation report

In a rare news conference, CIA Director John Brennan defended the agency’s record on so-called enhanced interrogation techniques and conceded abuses. While Brennan said that in some cases harsh tactics led to or confirmed important information, he admitted the cause-and-effect “is unknown and unknowable.” Gwen Ifill learns more from Siobhan Gorman of The Wall Street Journal.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    The director of the Central Intelligence Agency struck back today at a scathing Senate report on interrogations in the years after 9/11.

    John Brennan took the highly unusual step of calling reporters to CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, to make his case.

  • JOHN BRENNAN, CIA Director:

    There were no easy answers. And whatever your views are on enough EITs, our nation and in particular this agency did a lot of things right during this difficult time to keep this country strong and secure.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Brennan was deputy director when so-called enhanced interrogation techniques, or EITs, began. He conceded today there were abuses, but he defended the CIA's overall record.

  • JOHN BRENNAN:

    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.

    It is vitally important to recognize, however, that the overwhelming majority of officers involved in the program at CIA carried out their responsibilities faithfully and in accordance with the legal policy guidance they were provided. They did what they were asked to do in the service of our nation.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    The Senate Intelligence Committee report detailed a long list of brutal treatment and didn't flinch from calling it torture, prisoners stripped naked, beaten, deprived of sleep, water-boarded and subjected to hypothermia.

    Brennan said the committee was divided along partisan lines and didn't interview CIA officers. He also defended the interrogation tactics, saying in some cases it led to or confirmed important information.

  • JOHN BRENNAN:

    Detainees who were subjected to EITs at some point during their confinement subsequently provided information that our experts found to be useful and valuable in our counterterrorism efforts.

    And the cause-and-effect relationship between the application of those EITs and the ultimate provision of information is unknown and unknowable. But for someone to say that there was no intelligence of value, of use that came from those detainees once they were subjected to EITs, I think that is — lacks any foundation at all.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    In the specific case of Osama bin Laden, the Senate findings, reinforced in a running series of tweets today by committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein, said information gleaned from tortured detainees didn't help find him.

    Brennan, again, disagreed.

  • JOHN BRENNAN:

    It is our considered view that the detainees who were subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques provided information that was useful and was used in the ultimate operation to go against bin Laden.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    On another key point, the CIA director said agency officials didn't lie to the White House, Congress, the public and the media.

  • JOHN BRENNAN:

    The record simply doesn't support the study's inference that the agency repeatedly, systematically, and intentionally misled others on the effectiveness of the program.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Brennan's statements and a 136-page CIA rebuttal suggest that Senate investigators cherry-picked evidence to support predetermined conclusions.

    The CIA director's statements also appear to put him at odds with the White House. Officials there wouldn't say if President Obama approved of Brennan's decision to speak out. But spokesman Josh Earnest did say he has the president's support.

  • JOSH EARNEST, White House Press Secretary:

    John Brennan is a dedicated professional who has dedicated his time in public service to protecting the United States of America. That makes him a patriot, and it makes him somebody — makes him someone who has the full confidence of the president of the United States.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Brennan said he ultimately agreed with the president's 2009 decision to ban torture. And he said the agency now hopes to set aside the controversy over past behavior and look to the future.

    We take a closer look now at Brennan's defense and his agency's strained relations with Congress and with the White House with Wall Street Journal reporter Siobhan Gorman. She was at today's news conference.

    In fact, Siobhan, you had the first question. How unusual was it for the CIA director to even have a news conference?

  • SIOBHAN GORMAN, The Wall Street Journal:

    It was incredibly unusual. I think the last time it happened was in 2004, when CIA faced sort of a similar situation, which was a scathing Senate Intelligence Committee report about the Iraq intelligence failures.

    But I don't believe that that was one was televised. I think that this — this stands out, certainly, for its — its — the live nature of it.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    He seemed to straddle the question about effectiveness. Reporters came at him in a couple of different ways on that question, the effectiveness of torture, in the end saying it was unknowable. Where it did sound — like, how did it shake out to you?

  • SIOBHAN GORMAN:

    Well, he's trying to thread this — this really tough needle, where he says, well, detainees who underwent what they called these enhanced interrogation techniques, which are things like water-boarding or slamming detainees against walls or putting them in these coffin-like boxes, that after — after experiencing those techniques, detainees provided information.

    But he says that doesn't necessarily mean that the techniques actually produced the information, the individuals produced the information. So he's sort of trying to shift the discussion to say, well, the detainees were the sources of the information. We can't actually conclude that the techniques led to them providing that information.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    But he did concede that sometimes these extreme techniques did result in false information?

  • SIOBHAN GORMAN:

    Yes. I mean, it was interesting.

    At the very end of his — his session, he kind of offered a personal assessment. And he said that, in his assessment, when these techniques are applied, oftentimes, it will lead to false information, and that's not only unhelpful because it's false information, but it creates a higher volume of information, some true, some false, that then intelligence analysts have to try to sift through and figure out what's what.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    CIA Director Brennan and other CIA defenders have been pushing back pretty hard on the Senate report, saying that Democrats, in particular, on the committee cherry-picked evidence and ignored others and didn't interview staffers. Is that part of an overall strategy of pushback?

  • SIOBHAN GORMAN:

    That I think has been the CIA's argument for a while, and that's also been the argument of many Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee.

    I think that, you know, they — they — Director Brennan repeated again today this notion of not having interviewed CIA officials, and, you know, noted that that probably would have been a better way to go. And I think…

  • GWEN IFILL:

    I have to — pardon me, I have to ask you, what is the senators' — what is the Senate Democrats' response to that? Why didn't they?

  • SIOBHAN GORMAN:

    What they say — right.

    What they say is that the Justice Department had an ongoing investigation through much of the same time period the Senate was doing its investigation, and it didn't want to impede it. What the CIA says is that there was a six-month period after the Justice Department investigations ended and when the Senate investigation ended, and so they say that they should have interviewed people during that time.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    The intelligence community is pretty tight in Washington and around the world. Has this — this disagreement poisoned the relationship between the CIA and the Senate, or the Senate Democrats at least, or strained relations with the White House?

  • SIOBHAN GORMAN:

    Well, it's certainly poisons the relationship with Senate Democrats.

    We had Mark Udall, outgoing senator from Colorado, who is on the Senate Intelligence Committee, yesterday sort of reupping his call for Mr. Brennan's resignation. But something very interesting came in after Director Brennan's speech today.

    It was the statement from Senator Feinstein. And you had mentioned, I think, the tweets that were going on from her account during the speech, which seemed still pretty critical, and yet she put out a statement this afternoon that suggested that he had persuaded her on — not persuaded, but kind of that they had reached agreement on a number of points.

    She seemed particularly happy that Director Brennan said that the CIA had not concluded that these enhanced interrogation techniques, as they call them, did produce valuable intelligence. And, again, this is this distinction that Director Brennan is drawing between the individuals and the techniques producing the information.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Director Brennan also said that the CIA fell short in its responsibility to punish some of the people who had done these things some years ago. So what is happening now? What has changed? Is the reform under way? Is this — can we just say, OK, that was then and this is now?

  • SIOBHAN GORMAN:

    Well, he did point to changes they had made in accountability mechanisms, and he did say that they should have held some officers accountable.

    What he didn't say was that they were going to hold some of those officers accountable. And it's hard to know how many of them are still there. However, a former CIA official told me yesterday that he would estimate that maybe 30 percent to 50 percent of the officials who are cited in the Senate report are still working there.

    And the American Civil Liberties Union did put out a response today to Director Brennan's speech, saying that he still needs to hold people accountable.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    And, finally, Siobhan, is the word torture now a term of art in this discussion, where you hear people like Director Brennan using the term E.I.T. consistently, and Senate Democrats and folks at the White House seem to keep using the word torture?

  • SIOBHAN GORMAN:

    That has been a point of tension between the CIA and the White House for some time. And this is because President Obama has a number of times certainly called these techniques torture.

    And Director Brennan is in a tough position. I obviously don't know what term he would prefer to use. But CIA directors — I don't think that Director Panetta, Leon Panetta, used it either, and I don't know if Director Petraeus confronted these issues all that much.

    But CIA sort of has legal liability if they start saying that their officers conducted torture. So the director is in a kind of a tough position when it comes to that characterization. And again today, Director Brennan kind of sidestepped that question.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Siobhan Gorman of The Wall Street Journal, thank you.

  • SIOBHAN GORMAN:

    Thank you.

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