Torture apologists' quiet setback: Why Brennan's hazy torture dodge could be lethal

John Brennan says it's impossible to know if torture works -- and that poses a big problem for the pro-torture camp

Published December 12, 2014 5:59PM (EST)

 John Brennan               (AP/Charles Dharapak)
John Brennan (AP/Charles Dharapak)

At a press conference yesterday, CIA director John Brennan offered his first public remarks in response to the Senate Intelligence Committee’s damning report on his agency’s brutal and pointless Bush-era torture program. And, as one would expect of the country’s top spy, he defended his agency and disagreed strongly with the report, but gave little indication as to why. Instead he talked in circles and offered a determinedly hazy position on torture.

Before we get into that, let’s back up a bit and remember that Brennan, in his capacity as CIA director, has either lied or made false statements about CIA activities regarding this very issue. Several months ago, Brennan acknowledged that CIA employees had improperly accessed computers being used by Senate investigators as they compiled evidence for this report. It was a serious breach and a gross violation of the separation of powers, and Brennan arguably should have been fired, given that he had previously dismissed allegations of CIA intrusions as “beyond the — you know, the scope of reason in terms of what we would do.” But one of the features of working in national security is that, because of the nature of the work, you’re cut more slack and not held to the same standards of accountability.

Anyway, Brennan’s presser yesterday afternoon was preceded by a Dec. 9 statement gave the impression that he, and the CIA, were sticking with the agency’s long-standing position that the torture of terrorism detainees produced valuable information. “Our review indicates that interrogations of detainees on whom EITs were used did produce intelligence that helped thwart attack plans, capture terrorists, and save lives,” the statement read. In his remarks yesterday, Brennan clarified that position a bit – the detainees that were tortured provided useful info, but it was impossible to know whether the “enhanced interrogation techniques” were responsible for extracting that information:

Our reviews indicate that the Detention and Interrogation Program produced useful intelligence that helped the United States thwart attack plans, capture terrorists, and save lives. But let me be clear: we have not concluded that it was the use of EITs within that program that allowed us to obtain useful information from detainees subjected to them. The cause-and-effect relationship between the use of EITs and useful information subsequently provided by the detainee is, in my view, unknowable.

“Unknowable” is an interesting word to use there, given the implication that it is impossible to ever know whether “EITs” can be relied upon to produce useful intelligence. This feels like a dodge, and a cowardly one at that. It’s one thing for the CIA to say they don’t know if they worked, and quite another to say it’s impossible to know. The Senate report is fairly unequivocal on the matter and provides a good deal of evidence demonstrating that traditional forms of interrogation produced the intel that torture apologists are determined to attribute to EITs. The CIA’s stance is to treat this as a sort of “how high is up?” question that can never be answered.

Also left uncertain was the question of whether the CIA would ever get back into the torture business. “We CIA are not in the detention program,” Brennan said. “We are not contemplating at all getting back into the detention program, using any of those EITS, so I defer to the policymakers in future times when there is going to be the need to ensure that this country stays safe if we face a similar kind of crisis.” Prior to saying this, Brennan had explained at length that the agency, in the aftermath of 9/11, was not prepared to handle the responsibilities foisted upon them by the Bush administration’s Detention and Interrogation Program, but they did their best anyway. It’s more than a little disconcerting to hear him say that the agency isn’t in the business of detentions and already struggled with implementing an interrogation program, but they’ll nonetheless leave the door open to torture should another terrorist attack happen. And, remember, Brennan’s position is that they can’t even know if torture works.

And if that’s the position CIA wants to take, then it’s all but impossible to conclude that the program was effective or worth the damage it inflicted to our national security interests. The one possible “justification” for embarking upon a program of torture is that it is necessary – vitally and irreplaceably necessary – to extract information to save lives. The line we were fed from Bush administration officials was that this scenario played out time and again, and the use of “EITs” was invaluable in protecting the country from harm. Bush’s former CIA director is still out there insisting that “torture” saved lives. When the CIA says “we can’t know if they work,” what they’re saying is that it’s entirely possible – probable, even – that they don’t work.

Uncertainty of that nature is lethal to the cause of the people arguing in defense of the torture program. It’s on them to demonstrate conclusively that such a gross violation of moral and ethical norms was worth the cost. If the people who did the torturing are undecided on the matter, then the pro-torture side loses the argument. As they should.

By Simon Maloy

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