President Obama’s nominee for CIA director, John Brennan, has been one of the president’s closest advisers over the last four years. So it should come as no surprise that Obama wants him to run Langley. And Brennan’s boosters lay out a compelling case.
Brennan has served as Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser, overseeing the administration’s approach to fighting al Qaeda. This includes the use of drone attacks, which became the administration’s signature tactic. Osama bin Laden and a significant number of other senior al Qaeda leaders were killed on Brennan’s shift. And Brennan is a 25-year veteran of Langley, meaning he knows the CIA well and can manage the vast intelligence bureaucracy.
That is how the president sees Brennan’s nomination. But this narrative leaves out messy details—complexities that the Senate Intelligence Committee would be well served to explore.
Some have attacked Brennan, for instance, for making favorable comments about the CIA’s detention and enhanced interrogation program. It is heresy on the American left to claim that any good came out of the program, and the issue is likely to come up during Brennan’s confirmation hearing.
During an appearance on CBS News with Harry Smith on November 2, 2007, Brennan said the CIA’s interrogation practices had protected Americans. “There [has] 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,” Brennan said. “It has saved lives,” he continued. “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.”
Brennan was asked about a form of waterboarding during the same interview, and denounced the practice. “I think it is certainly subjecting an individual to severe pain and suffering, which is the classic definition of torture,” Brennan said. “And I believe, quite frankly, it’s inconsistent with American values and it’s something that should be prohibited.” However, Brennan pointed out, only “about a third” of the 100 or so terrorists detained by the CIA since the attacks of 9/11 “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.”
President Obama shuttered the CIA’s detention program—the same one John Brennan said “saved lives”—as one of his first acts in office. The United States has by and large gotten out of the detention business. The highest-profile terrorists captured in Obama’s first term have remained in the custody of American allies, who are often duplicitous.
For example, a Tunisian named Ali Harzi, who is suspected of playing a direct role in the September 11, 2012, terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, was captured in Turkey at the behest of American officials in October. He was deported to his home country, where he remained imprisoned for months before the FBI finally got access to him. Harzi was interviewed by the Americans for just three hours in December. A Tunisian court recently ordered him released.
There was a time when a suspected terrorist such as Harzi would have been detained at Guantánamo or in one of the CIA’s so-called black sites. Now, America either kills terrorists in drone strikes, thereby forgoing the opportunity to question them and potentially learn life-saving intelligence, or depends on foreign countries’ willingness to keep them in custody.
This raises a host of difficult questions for Brennan to answer. Does Brennan still believe that the CIA’s interrogation program saved lives? If so, why isn’t such a program necessary today? As Brennan himself remarked in 2007, the CIA used “the most serious types of enhanced procedures” (e.g., waterboarding) on “only a small proportion” of the detained terrorists. In fact, the CIA waterboarded only three captured terrorists and discontinued the practice in 2003. Why shouldn’t the CIA or other U.S. authorities still capture and question terrorists at American-run facilities, using techniques short of the “most serious” ones? Does Brennan think that potentially life-saving intelligence is being missed because the United States does not have a robust detention capability? What does he think America’s detention policy for suspected terrorists such as Harzi should be?