CIA nominee says he objected to torture

John Brennan has been answering questions before a Senate confirmation hearing as nominee for CIA director. photograph: new york times

John Brennan has been answering questions before a Senate confirmation hearing as nominee for CIA director. photograph: new york times


John Brennan, President Barack Obama’s nominee to become the next director of the Central Intelligence Agency, has said he raised personal objections to “interrogation techniques” such as waterboarding and the use of nudity during his time at the spy agency but did not have the authority to stop it.

He described as “reprehensible” the use of waterboarding on detainees, which simulates drowning, and said it should never have been carried out by the CIA, but he stopped short of describing it as torture.

“Waterboarding is something that never should have been employed and never will be if I have anything to do with it,” he said.

Mr Brennan, the son of Irish immigrants, told a Senate committee vetting the president’s candidate that he was aware of the controversial interrogation techniques when he was deputy director of the agency under the George W Bush administration but that he “did not take steps to stop those techniques”. The 25-year CIA veteran said he raised “personal objections” to certain techniques in conversations with colleagues about interrogation techniques.

“I did not try to stop it because it was something that was being done in a different part of the agency under the authority of others,” said Mr Brennan.

‘Saved lives’

Mr Brennan, who had previously said torture had “saved lives” and has co-ordinated the Obama administration’s drone campaign, faced heckling about US drone strikes against al-Qaeda suspects and the use of waterboarding. This forced the Senate committee to clear the public gallery before restarting proceedings.

Mr Brennan told the committee that the CIA should acknowledge publicly if a drone strike kills the wrong people.

The former CIA analyst, facing criticism over revelations about the Obama administration’s targeted killings by drone aircraft in Yemen and Pakistan and his role in the Bush administration’s interrogations, told the intelligence committee that its report on the CIA’s former rendition and now-banned interrogation techniques raised “very serious issues” and was “one of my highest priorities”.

Under questioning, he admitted that as chief of the CIA station in Saudi Arabia in the late 1990s that he objected to an attempt to capture Osama bin Laden.

He has “no second thoughts” about raising concerns about the mission considered by the Clinton administration as he felt that the chances of success were “minimal” and that it was likely that “other individuals were going to be killed”.

Mr Brennan’s confirmation hearing comes days after the leaking of a US justice department document explaining the legal basis for the killing of Anwar al-Awlak, an American citizen who had joined al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, in a US drone strike in Yemen in September 2011.

“I have publicly acknowledged that our fight against al-Qaeda . . . has sometimes involved the use of lethal force outside the ‘hot battlefield’ of Afghanistan,” he said.

“Accordingly, it is understandable that there is great interest in the legal basis as well as the thresholds, criteria, processes, procedures, approvals and reviews of such actions.”

Classified intelligence

Mr Brennan said he had no involvement in leaking classified intelligence data to the media but he often spoke to editors and reporters to try to keep sensitive information out of the public domain.

“After working in the intelligence profession for 30 years I know the importance of keeping those secrets secret,” he said. He acknowledged that some of the government’s “counterterrorism policies and operations have sparked widespread debate, domestically and internationally”.

Mr Brennan, whose parents emigrated from Co Roscommon, would become the 21st director of the agency if appointed and the first to rise through the ranks to lead it since Robert Gates in the early 1990s.

In his opening statement, he thanked his 91-year-old mother Dorothy and 92-year-old father Owen “who emigrated from Ireland 65 years ago”.