POLITICS

In Condemning Human Rights Abuses, CIA Director Stirs Up Old Agency Wounds

03/13/2015 07:08 pm ET | Updated Mar 14, 2015
Spencer Platt via Getty Images

NEW YORK -- CIA Director John Brennan is all about transparency and accountability when it comes to human rights abuses -- at least, it seems, when it's someone else committing them.

In a rare public appearance Friday at the New York City headquarters of the Council on Foreign Relations, Washington’s top spy responded to a question on Iraqi militias’ human rights abuses with a firm condemnation, a statement that turned a few heads given the agency’s history of defending itself against similar allegations.

“Human rights abuses, whether they take place on the part of ISIL or of militias or individuals who are working as part of formal security services, need to be exposed, need to be stopped,” Brennan said Friday, using a common acronym for the Islamic State group.

Brennan was responding to an audience question about recent revelations concerning Iraqi militias aligned with the U.S. in the fight against the Islamic State. But the remark was perhaps odd to hear given the agency's own record of alleged human rights abuses, which has lately been a topic of public discussion.

Brennan's comment Friday comes not long after the CIA's own reckoning with startling abuses revealed in December with the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the agency’s post-9/11 torture program. In 500 pages of graphic detail, the report describes instances of misconduct, abuse and human rights violations that the CIA allegedly carried out during the run of the torture program.

Among the many sobering findings of the study, Intelligence Committee investigators found that the agency had employed vicious tactics in questioning terror suspects, abandoning legal guidelines and then lying about it to their overseers. The investigators also found that the harsh techniques -- which included waterboarding, rectal feeding, sleep deprivation and hanging detainees by their hands from bars -- did not ultimately yield valuable intelligence.

"I don't know where to begin," said Katherine Hawkins, a lead investigator for the nonpartisan Detainee Task Force's extensive report on the agency torture program. "The U.S. government is not given to honest self-reflection about its own or its allies' human rights abuses, but Brennan's statement is really in its own league."

"The CIA has not only spent over a decade trying to prevent exposure of facts about its rendition and torture program, but has surveilled and tried to prosecute people for investigating that program -- more than once," Hawkins went on. "It continues to defend rectal rehydration as 'a medical technique' and to censor detainees' accounts of their own treatment."

The CIA's Office of Public Affairs declined to comment.

Despite his remarks on Friday, Brennan has indeed defended the CIA when confronted with the report’s conclusions.

Brennan did admit in December that mistakes were made throughout the agency’s operation of the program. He acknowledged that in some cases, agency operatives crossed a line. But in a notable departure from the White House, Brennan refused to characterize the extreme interrogation tactics as torture.

The director also challenged the Intelligence Committee’s conclusion that the techniques were an ineffective means of gathering intelligence. Rather, Brennan stood by the agency's assertion that the use of waterboarding, rectal feeding and other harsh tactics did in fact yield valuable information.

Additionally, while Brennan said Friday that human rights abuses should be exposed, he and the agency fought vehemently to keep the agency’s own record of abuses from public view, often with the backing of the Obama administration.

During the course of the Intelligence Committee’s yearslong probe, for example, Brennan directed agency lawyers to comb through off-limits Senate computers in an effort to determine how certain incriminating documents related to the torture program had wound up in committee hands.

The issue of the torture program sent relations between the CIA and the Intelligence Committee plummeting to a new, icy low. While the feud appears to have quieted for now -- the agency cleared itself in January of any wrongdoing -- anger lingers over the incident.

The CIA continues to fight with the committee over the contested documents, which the agency says the Senate committee was never entitled to have. For now, the committee is still holding on to the documents, though new chair Richard Burr (R-N.C.) has suggested he may eventually return them to the agency.

As for the CIA, Washington has still not made it clear whether the torture carried out by the agency and by military interrogators was illegal. No one, save whistleblower John Kiriakou, has been prosecuted for involvement in the program, and despite an effort to at least get a formal pardon on the books, there’s been little movement in Washington to set a firm precedent on torture one way or the other.

This story has been updated to include that the CIA declined to comment.

CORRECTION: This article has been edited to note that John Kiriakou was the only whistleblower prosecuted for involvement in the CIA torture program, not John Napier Tye.

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