Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley/ Defense Department file photo

John Brennan: Torture Report Is Flawed

"The record does not support the study's inference that the agency misled others on the effectiveness of the program," said the former CIA chief, while acknowledging mistakes made.

CIA Director John Brennan accused the Senate torture report Thursday of being flawed in its central findings, but acknowledged there is no clear evidence to know whether brutal interrogation techniques directly led to unique, valuable intelligence during the Bush administration's war on terror.

Brennan was both defensive and elusive during a 45 minute press conference and speech, acknowledging that the CIA had made mistakes during its application of harsh interrogation techniques on prisoners detained at foreign black sites while often eliding specifics about precisely what aspects of the program were useful and which were not.

"Let me be clear: we have not concluded it was the use of ["enhanced" interrogation] within that program that allowed us" to obtain vital national security information, Brennan said. "The cause and effect … is, in my view, unknowable."

But Brennan denied that there was any evidence, as the report has suggested, that the agency intentionally misled the Bush White House, Congress and the public about details regarding the program's importance and severity.

"The record does not support the study's inference that the agency misled others on the effectiveness of the program," Brennan said.

The unprecedented press conference, held at CIA headquarters by the famously secretive spy agency, was done in response to renewed controversy over the agency's Bush-era use of so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques" following the Senate's release this week of a landmark investigation into the practices. It also arrives one day after outgoing Democratic Sen. Mark Udall excoriated Brennan for continuing to be deceitful about the program during a fiery 48-minute speech from the Senate floor.

The director began the historic press conference in a remarkably defensive posture, invoking the memory of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to push back on the blistering findings of a Senate torture report released this week.

"In our pain, we pledged to come together as one and do what we could to prevent Osama bin Laden and his killing machine from ever carrying out another attack on our beautiful country," Brennan said. "Our nation, and particular our agency, did a lot of things right during this difficult time to keep this country secure."

Brennan acknowledged failures in the CIA's program, citing the burdens placed upon it in the aftermath of 9/11 and the new requests made from an agency traditionally tasked with intelligence gathering.

"The CIA was unprepared to conduct a detention and interrogation program," Brennan said. "Although we view the process overtaken by the committee as flawed, many aspects of their conclusions are sound and consistent with our own findings."

Brennan did clarify that while the program as a whole saved lives, it remains unclear whether the "enhanced" practices directly contributed novel and valuable intelligence.

He did acknowledge that the agency "fell short of holding some officers accountable for their mistakes" and that some of the techniques described in the Senate study, while the product of rogue agents that acted beyond the bounds of what was authorized, are "abhorrent, and rightly repudiated by all."

Brennan did not once mention the word "torture" during his opening remarks. The president, human rights organizations, and legal scholars have said the "enhanced" interrogation practices, including waterboarding, amounted to torture.

When asked if more than three detainees were waterboarded, Brennan said he could not be categorical in his response, but that everything he had seen and read "indicates that [only] three individuals" were subjected to that. The Senate report suggests many more may have been waterboarded.

"I will leave to others how they might want to label those activities," said Brennan. The Senate report found cases where detainees were chained to a wall for days, endured weeks-long sleep deprivation and, in five cases, were subjected to "rectal hydration" without documented medical need.  

Soon after Brennan began speaking, Senate Intelligence Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein began tweeting criticisms, hashtagged #ReadTheReport.

Brennan appeared to be trying to strike a delicate balance in his news conference, saying repeatedly that the interrogation program was useful but that the usefulness of evidence that the specific interrogation techniques provided was "unknowable." He reiterated that point when asked about the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound in Pakistan.

"It is our considered view that the detainees that were subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques that was useful and was used in the ultimate operation to go against bin Laden," Brennan said. But, he added quickly: "I am not going to attribute that to the use of EITs."

Brennan was also asked about the Obama administration's current drone strikes program. While he did not speak specifically to any program, he did say that the administration's use of drones in counter-terrorism "has done tremendous work to keep this country safe."

Brennan was named director of the CIA in 2013. He has a long history at the CIA, including time spent as former director George Tenet's chief-of staff and as deputy executive director of the CIA early in the Bush presidency. He later served as director of the National Counterterrorism Center from 2004 to 2005.

In testimony nearly two years ago during a confirmation hearing to run the CIA, Brennan indicated that he was "aware of the program" but that he had expressed skepticism about its utility. But he "did not try to stop it."

But Brennan has drawn criticism for being largely defensive of the brutal interrogation tactics described in the blistering report, which include waterboarding and extreme sleep deprivation, and he has questioned the veracity of the report's findings.

While acknowledging mistakes and admitting that some of the techniques described went too far, Brennan and his agency have maintained that they were valuable and saved lives. President Obama has condemned the practices as inconsistent with American values, but has refused to weigh in on their efficacy or whether the CIA misled the Bush White House, Congress and the public about the importance and severity of the interrogation program.

Earlier Thursday, the White House again reiterated its support for Brennan.

"The president is pleased to count [Brennan] as one of the people that has been a senior member of his national security team since the very beginning of his tenure in office," White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters. "The president continues to rely on his advice to this day."

Brennan has close ties to Obama, having supported his first campaign for president in 2008.

At least three senators have publicly called for Brennan's resignation this year, including Democratic Sens. Mark Udall and Martin Heinrich and Republican Sen. Rand Paul. The resignation calls came earlier this year, after Brennan admitted that the CIA had improperly accessed computers used by Senate staffers during its study of the agency's interrogation program. Brennan originally denied the claim, made publicly by Sen. Feinstein, before later admitting it following the findings of an agency internal investigation.

The hacking, according to Udall and other Democratic senators, was done to remove from the Senate computers the so-called 2011 Panetta Review, named after then-Director Leon Panetta, which the CIA may have handed over to its overseers by accident.

That document was retrieved and won't be released because it "was outside the scope of the period of time that was covered by the agreement" reached between Sen. Feinstein and Panetta.

Brennan's refusal to disclose the Panetta Review is evidence that he is lying to the public about what the CIA knows about its enhanced interrogation program, Udall said.

"The refusal to provide the full Panetta Review and the refusal to acknowledge facts detailed in both the committee study and the Panetta Review lead to one disturbing finding: Director Brennan and the CIA today are continuing to willfully provide inaccurate information and misrepresent the efficacy of torture," Udall said. "In other words: The CIA is lying."

Brennan pledged to work closely with Senate overseers in the future, and that he wanted to work with the Congress to ensure "there is a better understanding on what exactly it is that we do."