In his highly-unusual press conference Thursday, CIA Director John Brennan had three principle audiences:
• The Senate Intelligence Committee, whose report this week is highly critical of the spy agency, specifically the CIA’s use of what it calls “enhanced interrogation techniques” (EITs) on suspected terrorists.
• CIA officers and analysts, whose morale has been battered by years of criticism over perceived failings to prevent terrorist attacks and then rogue behavior – “torture,” to many people – in its treatment of detainees.
• And the American people, who need to be reminded of the days following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the belief at the time shared by experts and lawmakers of all political persuasions that more attacks were being planned and must be prevented. (Mr. Brennan as much as addressed the public in a lengthy opening statement, noting that the first American killed in Afghanistan just days after 9/11 was a CIA officer hunting for the Al Qaeda perpetrators.)
"In many respects the program was uncharted territory for the CIA, and we were unprepared," Brennan said in a 45-minute press conference Thursday afternoon from the agency's headquarters in Langley, Va. "But the president authorized the program six days after 9/11, and it was our job to carry it out."
The essence of the Senate report is that harsh techniques such as water-boarding and “rectal feeding” did not (for example) help lead to finding Osama bin Laden, and in fact may have been counterproductive.
Brennan said he “fundamentally disagrees” with that assessment. “There was very valuable intelligence obtained from individuals who had been, at some point, subjected to EIT's,” he said.
But as the phrase “at some point” indicates, Brennan also maintains that whether or not the use of such techniques led directly to actionable intelligence is “unknown and unknowable.” And in reply to a question, Brennan also declined to describe such treatment – harsher than previously made public, according to the Senate report – as “torture.”
“I will leave to others how they might want to label those activities,” Brennan said. “For me it was something that is regrettable.”
But Brennan also said the agency made mistakes in the early scramble to capture those with terrorist links and that some of the techniques used to make them talk were "abhorrent and should be repudiated by all.”
"None of these lapses should be excused, downplayed, or denied," he said.
The Senate Intelligence Committee report (6,700 pages long, 500 pages of which were released in summary) was destined to be highly politicized. It was backed by Democrats and opposed by most Republicans, who issued their own minority report.
In a Wall Street Journal opinion piece, former CIA directors George Tenet, Porter Goss, and Michael Hayden called the report a "one-sided study marred by errors of fact and interpretation – essentially a poorly done and partisan attack on the agency that has done the most to protect America.”
In his current position as the nation’s top spy, Brennan cannot appear partisan although his appointment as CIA director is political. He also must answer to congressional oversight committees.
In his press conference Thursday, Brennan criticized the Senate Intelligence Committee on what he sees as an important point.
It was "lamentable,” he said, that the committee interviewed no CIA personnel to ask "what were you thinking" and "what was the calculus you used" in determining interrogation practices. Without that, he said, "you lose the opportunity to really understand what was taking place at the time."
During Brennan’s press conference, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein (or more likely somebody on her staff) regularly tweeted rebuttals to things he said. Among her tweets: