John Brennan defends CIA after torture report in rare press conference

By Eric Bradner, CNN
December 12, 2014 — Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)

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Washington (CNN) — CIA Director John Brennan on Thursday defended harsh interrogation techniques as providing “useful” information to authorities, including in the raid that led to the death of Osama bin Laden. But he said it is “unknowable” what information could specifically be attributed to those techniques.

“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,” Brennan said.

Brennan’s comments, in a rare news conference, come two days after a Senate panel released a blockbuster 528-page report detailing “enhanced interrogation techniques” — including mock executions, “rectal rehydration,” sleep deprivation and beatings — in interrogations in the mid-2000s.

He admitted that some CIA officers’ actions were “not authorized, were abhorrent and rightly should be repudiated by all. And we fell short in holding some officers accountable for their mistakes.”

Brennan acknowledged that the agency sometimes exceeded its legal authority during interrogations of terrorism suspects.

RELATED: CIA feared for future of interrogation program, report shows

He said detainees who faced “enhanced interrogation techniques” did provide some information that provided useful — as well as other information that didn’t. He said whether those interrogations had anything to do with that information is “unknowable.”

“Let me be clear: We have not concluded that it was the EITs within that program that allowed us to obtain useful information from the detainees subjected to them,” he said.

But he staunchly defended the agency during the 45-minute news conference, adding: “CIA officers’ actions that did comport with the law and policy should neither be criticized nor conflated with the actions of the few who did not follow the guidance issued.”

Brennan opened his remarks with a vivid depiction of the events of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, and described the atmosphere going into fighting terrorism and collecting intelligence in the immediate aftermath of the attacks.

“There were no easy answers, and whatever your views are on [enhanced interrogation techniques], our nation and in particular this agency did a lot of things right during this difficult time to keep this country strong and secured,” Brennan said.

RELATED: Who is John Brennan?

Brennan praised those who worked with him but he added the agency was “unprepared to conduct a detention and interrogation program, and our officers inadequately developed and monitored its initial activities.”

Brennan never used the word “torture” to describe the CIA’s tactics. And he deflected a question about whether, in the interest of transparency, he supported the Senate Intelligence Committee’s decision to release its report.

“I think there’s been more than enough transparency that’s happened over the last couple days,” he said. “I think it’s over the top.”

Brennan said it’s “lamentable” that the Senate panel didn’t conduct interviews with CIA agents — a contrast, he said, with its handling of a report on Iraq’s lack of weapons of mass destruction, which included interviews with more than 200 officers.

His strongest criticism of the report was with its contention that the CIA misled the public and government officials — including then-President George W. Bush. That, Brennan said, is untrue — a stance former Vice President Dick Cheney backed up in an interview with Fox News on Wednesday night.

Still, he didn’t fault the report’s finding that the CIA’s tactics were harsh and, at times, went beyond the legal authority Bush’s Justice Department said the agency had.

“Many aspects of their conclusions are sound and consistent with our own prior findings,” Brennan said. “Over the years, internal agency reviews, including numerous investigations by our office of the inspector general, found fault in the CIA’s running of the program. We have acknowledged these mistakes.”

Brennan was the CIA’s deputy executive director while the tactics were being used. He said he had “some visibility” into what was happening, but that he wasn’t in the chain of command for that program, and didn’t say whether he had made any effort to push for changes at the time.

He also noted that the program for using “enhanced interrogation techniques” was ended in 2007.

“In light of the fact that these techniques were banned seven years ago, however, my fervent hope is that we can put aside this debate and move on to issues that are relevant to our current national security challenges,” Brennan said.

Meanwhile, one of Brennan’s sharpest critics, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the chairwoman of the committee behind the report, live-tweeted along with the press conference and sharply rebutted several points throughout his press conference.

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