John Brennan and Bush’s interrogation/detention policies

Examining the actual record of Obama's top adviser for intelligence policy

Topics: Washington, D.C.,

(updated below)

Last Wednesday, I wrote:

It simply is noteworthy of comment and cause for concern — though far from conclusive about what Obama will do — that Obama’s transition chief for intelligence policy, John Brennan, was an ardent supporter of torture and one of the most emphatic advocates of FISA expansions and telecom immunity.  

Yesterday, Andrew Sullivan noted that observation but then linked to this post from James Gordon Meek of the Counterrorism blog, which reported that Brennan — a top CIA aide to George Tenet during most of the Bush administration — is a leading candidate to replace Mike McConnell and become Obama’s Director of National Intelligence.  Meek, not providing any links or citations, wrote:  ”Among many things Democrats like about the softspoken Brennan are his anti-torture views“ (emphasis added).  Andrew is right when he says:  “They both can’t be right.”

My statement about Brennan was based on several pieces of compelling evidence.  First, there is this detailed New Yorker article on Bush’s secret interrogation programs by Jane Mayer, unquestionably one of the nation’s best and most reliable reporters on these matters.  She wrote:

Without more transparency, the value of the C.I.A.’s interrogation and detention program is impossible to evaluate. Setting aside the moral, ethical, and legal issues, even supporters, such as John Brennan, acknowledge that much of the information that coercion produces is unreliable. As he put it, “All these methods produced useful information, but there was also a lot that was bogus.

Mayer explicitly identified Brennan –with whom she spoke concerning these programs — as a “supporter.”

Then there is Brennan’s December 5, 2005 appearance on The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, in which he vehemently defended the Bush administration’s use of rendition — one of the key tools to subject detainees to torture:



JOHN BRENNAN: I think over the past decade it has picked up some speed because of the nature of the terrorist threat right now but essentially it’s a practice the United States and other countries have used to transport suspected terrorists from a country, usually where they’re captured to another country, either their country of origin or a country where they can be questioned, detained or brought to justice. . . .

MARGARET WARNER: So was Secretary Rice correct today when she called it a vital tool in combating terrorism?

JOHN BRENNAN: I think it’s an absolutely vital tool. I have been intimately familiar now over the past decade with the cases of rendition that the U.S. Government has been involved in. And I can say without a doubt that it has been very successful as far as producing intelligence that has saved lives.

MARGARET WARNER: So is it — are you saying both in two ways — both in getting terrorists off the streets and also in the interrogation?

JOHN BRENNAN: Yes. The rendition is the practice or the process of rendering somebody from one place to another place. It is moving them and the U.S. Government will frequently facilitate that movement from one country to another. . . .

Also I think it’s rather arrogant to think we’re the only country that respects human rights. I think that we have a lot of assurances from these countries that we hand over terrorists to that they will, in fact, respect human rights.

And there are different ways to gain those assurances. But also let’s say an individual goes to Egypt because they’re an Egyptian citizen and the Egyptians then have a longer history in terms of dealing with them, and they have family members and others that they can bring in, in fact, to be part of the whole interrogation process.

Even when CBS News — for which Brennan was serving as an intelligence analyst — was reporting on the dreadful case of Maher Arar, the Canadian citizen whom the Bush administration abducted at JFK Airport and rendered to Sryia for 10 months to be tortured only for it to then be revealed that he had no connection whatsoever to terrorism, Brennan was defending the rendition program:

CBS NEWS: Despite Arar’s experience, this former counterterrorism official says “rendition” does have its place.

Mr. JOHN BRENNAN (CBS News Terrorism Analyst, Former Director, National Counterterrorism Center): I think it allows us to have the option to move a person who is involved in terrorism or terrorism-related activities to a country where they can be effectively questioned or prosecuted.

In November, 2007, Brennan — in an interview with CBS News’ Harry Smith — issued a ringing endorsement for so-called “enhanced interrogation tactics” short of waterboarding:

SMITH: You know, this all becomes such a giant issue because the president has gone on record so many times saying the United States does not torture. If we acknowledge that this kind of activity [waterboarding] goes on, you know, what does that mean, exactly, I guess?

Mr. BRENNAN: Well, the CIA has acknowledged that it has detained about 100 terrorists since 9/11, and about a third of them have been subjected to what the CIA refers to as enhanced interrogation tactics, and only a small proportion of those have in fact been subjected to the most serious types of enhanced procedures.

SMITH: Right. And you say some of this has born fruit.

Mr. BRENNAN: There have been a lot of information that has come out from these interrogation procedures that the agency has in fact used against the real hard-core terrorists. It has saved lives. And let’s not forget, these are hardened terrorists who have been responsible for 9/11, who have shown no remorse at all for the deaths of 3,000 innocents.

In the same interview, Brennan even defended — or at least justified — Michael Mukasey’s refusal to say whether waterboarding was “torture,” on the ground that by doing so, Mukasey would be admitting that the President broke the law (as though that is a valid reason for a prospective Attorney General to refuse to opine on a legal matter):

But I think Judge Mukasey is in a very difficult position right now as the attorney general nominee, to be asked whether or not this is torture. And if torture, then, is unconstitutional or illegal, they’re asking whether or not waterboarding is illegal and whether or not the individuals, which includes the president and others–if it was used, who authorized and actually used this type of procedure may be subject to some type of judicial action.

And in July, 2008, NPR attributed Obama’s reversal on FISA and telecom immunity to the fact that he was relying on the advice of Brennan, an emphatic supporter of those policies:

What’s important here is Obama’s reference to the information he’s received. He’s advised on intelligence matters by John Brennan, the former director of the National Counterterrorism Center. Like many intelligence professionals, Brennan says the FISA program is essential to the fight against terrorism. By adopting Brennan’s view, Obama improves his standing with the intelligence community. For someone looking ahead to a presidential administration, that’s important.

In fairness, Brennan, over the last couple of years, as he’s become more attached to Obama’s campaign, has several times said that waterboarding specifically is wrong, that it is “inconsistent with American values and it’s something that should be prohibited.”  In a 2006 PBS interview, he said that “the dark side has its limits”; that ”we’re going to look back on this time and regret some of the things that we did, because it is not in keeping with our values”; and, to his credit, he urged that there be much greater openness in debating policies such as eavesdropping and interrogation.

As I noted the other day, Obama is going to have a wide panoply of advisers and, especially now before they’re appointed, it’s important not to draw unwarranted conclusions or to believe the endless parade of gossip about who is going to be appointed to what positions. Still, Brennan has been and continues to be an extremely important adviser for Obama on intelligence issues.  His views on past administration conduct are, in many important instances, clearly disturbing and bear watching.

* * * * * 

Last month, I interviewed Harper‘s Scott Horton regarding a piece he had written on the efforts of several PBS officials, including Jay Rockefeller’s wife (the CEO of Washington’s PBS affiliate) to block broadcast of the documentary Torturing Democracy, which compellingly documents how virtually all of the torture and other illegalities and abuses of America’s interrogation programs were authorized and ordered at the highest levels of the Bush administration (of which waterboarding is but one small example).

That documentary is now available to be viewed in its entirety online — here — and I can’t recommend it highly enough.  Though it includes a few standard documentary tactics that I could do without (ominous music, grave-toned narration, black-and-white up-close photos of the villains), it is an extraordinarily well-documented account of America’s torture program over the last seven years and, most informatively, the role that top Bush officials played in those programs.  Notably, most of the sources on which it relies are former U.S. military and Bush administration officials who waged courageous though ultimately unsuccessful battles to halt these programs.

I’m particularly amazed that someone could be aware of this set of facts — could know that our highest government officials deliberately and knowingly authorized torture techniques that are war crimes under both U.S. law and international treaties to which we are a party — and still argue, as so many do, that it would be wrong to hold these political officials accountable for the laws they systematically violated.  It’s easy to say how horrendous one finds torture to be.  But those who simultaneously advocate that American political leaders should be immunized from the consequences of their criminality — that, in essence, we should refrain from enforcing these laws — are proving that those are empty words indeed.

 

UPDATE:  The aforementioned James Gordon Meek, who is the Washington correspondent for The New York Daily News, sent me a reply this morning by email, which is posted here.  My response to him is also posted there.

Last Wednesday, I wrote:

It simply is noteworthy of comment and cause for concern — though far from conclusive about what Obama will do — that Obama’s transition chief for intelligence policy, John Brennan, was an ardent supporter of torture and one of the most emphatic advocates of FISA expansions and telecom immunity.  

Yesterday, Andrew Sullivan noted that observation but then linked to this post from James Gordon Meek, which reported that Brennan is a leading candidate to replace Mike McConnell and become Obama’s Director of National Intelligence.  Meek, not providing any links, wrote:  ”Among many things Democrats like about the softspoken Brennan are his anti-torture views.”  Andrew is right when he says:  “They both can’t be right.”

My statement was based on several pieces of compelling evidence.  First, there is this New Yorker detailed article on Bush’s secret interrogation programs by Jane Mayer, unquestionably one of the nation’s best and most reliable reporters on these matters.  She wrote:

Without more transparency, the value of the C.I.A.’s interrogation and detention program is impossible to evaluate. Setting aside the moral, ethical, and legal issues, even supporters, such as John Brennan, acknowledge that much of the information that coercion produces is unreliable. As he put it, “All these methods produced useful information, but there was also a lot that was bogus.

Mayer explicitly identified Brennan –with whom she spoke concerning these programs — as a “supporter.”

Then there is Brennan’s December 5, 2005 appearance on The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, in which he vehemently defended the Bush administration’s use of rendition — one of the key tools to subject detainees to torture:

JOHN BRENNAN: I think over the past decade it has picked up some speed because of the nature of the terrorist threat right now but essentially it’s a practice the United States and other countries have used to transport suspected terrorists from a country, usually where they’re captured to another country, either their country of origin or a country where they can be questioned, detained or brought to justice. . . .

MARGARET WARNER: So was Secretary Rice correct today when she called it a vital tool in combating terrorism?

JOHN BRENNAN: I think it’s an absolutely vital tool. I have been intimately familiar now over the past decade with the cases of rendition that the U.S. Government has been involved in. And I can say without a doubt that it has been very successful as far as producing intelligence that has saved lives.

MARGARET WARNER: So is it — are you saying both in two ways — both in getting terrorists off the streets and also in the interrogation?

JOHN BRENNAN: Yes. The rendition is the practice or the process of rendering somebody from one place to another place. It is moving them and the U.S. Government will frequently facilitate that movement from one country to another. . . .

Also I think it’s rather arrogant to think we’re the only country that respects human rights. I think that we have a lot of assurances from these countries that we hand over terrorists to that they will, in fact, respect human rights.

And there are different ways to gain those assurances. But also let’s say an individual goes to Egypt because they’re an Egyptian citizen and the Egyptians then have a longer history in terms of dealing with them, and they have family members and others that they can bring in, in fact, to be part of the whole interrogation process.

Even when CBS News — for which Brennan was serving as an intelligence analyst — was reporting on the dreadful case of Maher Arar, the Canadian citizen whom the Bush administration abducted at JFK Airport and rendered to Syria for 10 months to be tortured, Brennan was defending the rendition program:

CBS NEWS: Despite Arar’s experience, this former counterterrorism official says “rendition” does have its place.

Mr. JOHN BRENNAN (CBS News Terrorism Analyst, Former Director, National Counterterrorism Center): I think it allows us to have the option to move a person who is involved in terrorism or terrorism-related activities to a country where they can be effectively questioned or prosecuted.

In November, 2007, Brennan — in an interview with CBS News’ Harry Smith — issued a ringing endorsement for so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” short of waterboarding:

SMITH: You know, this all becomes such a giant issue because the president has gone on record so many times saying the United States does not torture. If we acknowledge that this kind of activity goes on, you know, what does that mean, exactly, I guess?

Mr. BRENNAN: Well, the CIA has acknowledged that it has detained about 100 terrorists since 9/11, and about a third of them have been subjected to what the CIA refers to as enhanced interrogation tactics, and only a small proportion of those have in fact been subjected to the most serious types of enhanced procedures.

SMITH: Right. And you say some of this has born fruit.

Mr. BRENNAN: There have been a lot of information that has come out from these interrogation procedures that the agency has in fact used against the real hard-core terrorists. It has saved lives. And let’s not forget, these are hardened terrorists who have been responsible for 9/11, who have shown no remorse at all for the deaths of 3,000 innocents.

In the same interview, Brennan even defended — or at least justified — Michael Mukasey’s refusal to say whether waterboarding was “torture,” on the ground that by doing so, Mukasey would be admitting that the President broke the law (as though that is a valid reason for an Attorney General to refuse to opine on a legal matter):

But I think Judge Mukasey is in a very difficult position right now as the attorney general nominee, to be asked whether or not this is torture. And if torture, then, is unconstitutional or illegal, they’re asking whether or not waterboarding is illegal and whether or not the individuals, which includes the president and others–if it was used, who authorized and actually used this type of procedure may be subject to some type of judicial action.

And in July, 2008, NPR attributed Obama’s reversal on FISA and telecom immunity to the fact that he was relying on the advice of Brennan, an emphatic supporter of those policies:

What’s important here is Obama’s reference to the information he’s received. He’s advised on intelligence matters by John Brennan, the former director of the National Counterterrorism Center. Like many intelligence professionals, Brennan says the FISA program is essential to the fight against terrorism. By adopting Brennan’s view, Obama improves his standing with the intelligence community. For someone looking ahead to a presidential administration, that’s important.

In fairness, Brennan over the last couple of years, as he’s become more attached to Obama’s campaign, has several times said that waterboarding specifically is wrong, that it is “inconsistent with American values and it’s something that should be prohibited.”  In a 2006 PBS interview, he said that “the dark side has its limits”; that ”we’re going to look back on this time and regret some of the things that we did, because it is not in keeping with our values”; and, to his credit, urged that there be much greater openness in debating policies such as eavesdropping and interrogation.

As I noted the other day, Obama is going to have a wide panoply of advisers and, especially now before they’re appointed, it’s important not to draw unwarranted conclusions or to believe the endless parade of gossip about who is going to what position. Still, Brennan has been and continues to be an extremely important adviser for Obama on intelligence issues.  His views on past administration conduct are, in many important instances, clearly disturbing and bear watching.

* * * * * 

Last month, I interviewed Harper‘s Scott Horton regarding a piece he had written on the efforts of several PBS officials, including Jay Rockefeller’s wife (the CEO of Washington’s PBS affiliate) to block broadcast of the documentary Torturing Democracy, which compelling documents how virtually all of the torture and other illegalities and abuses of America’s interrogation programs were authorized and ordered at the highest levels of the Bush administration.

That documentary is now available to be viewed in its entirety online — here — and I can’t recommend it highly enough.  Though it includes a few standard documentary tactics that I could do without (ominous music, grave-toned narration, black-and-white up-close photos of the villains), it is an extraordinarily well-documented account of America’s torture program over the last seven years.  Notably, most of the sources on which it relies are former U.S. military and Bush administration officials who waged courageous though ultimately unsuccessful battles to halt these programs.

I’m particularly amazed that someone could be aware of this set of facts — could know that our highest government officials deliberately and knowingly authorized torture techniques that are war crimes under both U.S. law and international treaties to which we are a party — and still argue, as so many do, that it would be wrong to hold these political officials accountable for the laws they systematically violated.  It’s easy to say how horrendous one finds torture to be.  But those who simultaneously advocate that American political leaders should be immunized from the consequences of their criminality — that we should refrain from enforcing these laws — are proving that those are empty words indeed.


JGM to GG

Thanks for the link to my CT Blog item.

One clarification and one observation:

I’m a Washington correspondent for the New York Daily News. I’m merely a volunteer “guest expert” contributing occasional items to the Counterterrorism Blog — which are always posted first on the DN’s Mouth of the Potomac Blog. The CT Blog has my bio:

http://counterterrorismblog.org/experts/james_gordon_meek/bio/

As for John Brennan, I don’t think you made your case that he’s “an ardent supporter of torture.” The quotes you found raise legitimate questions but wouldn’t convict Brennan.

Being in favor of rendition is not the same as being an ardent supporter of torture. I know plenty of people in counterterrorism (a beat I’ve covered for the past decade) who are anti-torture but have participated in renditions. Very few ended up in detainees being dropped into foreign torture chambers, and before 9/11 the purpose was to capture fugitive terror suspects and bring them to trial. Obviously Team Bush should be held accountable for any renditions gone awry and the rendition program should have been thoroughly reviewed and limited after the botched Italian operation and the Arar case, to name two scandals.

You were right, though, I offered no citation to my statement about Brennan being anti-torture. I won’t get into my sources and methods, but I stand by my reporting.

Feel free to post my full e-mail.

Cheers, JGM

____________________


GG to JGM

I appreciate your reply and will post it. I knew you were a NY Daily News reporter but wasn’t sure in what capacity you were writing there.

The most incriminating aspect of Brennan’s views, in my opinion, is his support for the Bush administration’s “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Since he says he opposes waterboarding and isn’t on record opposing anything else, one can reasonably assume that must include some combination of things like stress positions, forced nudity, hypothermia, sleep deprivation, exploitation of paranoias, extreme isolation, hanging by the wrists, threats, and other previously forbidden techniques authorized by the Bush administration.

I suppose it depends on what one means by “torture,” but in my view, waterboarding is only a small part of that — probably the most infrequently used part of it. Expressed support for the CIA interrogation program under Bush is extremely strong evidence of support for torture.

Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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