Obama’s CIA chief won’t rule out torture in the future

Zack Beauchamp
  1. CIA director John Brennan refused to rule out the use of torture by CIA agents in the future when asked in a Tuesday press conference.
  2. Brennan said that the CIA has no plans to torture again, but also suggested that the CIA would be willing to do so if "policymakers" told them to, implicitly characterizing torture is an acceptable policy response to national security threats.
  3. During the speech, Brennan repeatedly defended the idea that torture produced useful intelligence, despite clear evidence to the contrary.

Brennan refuses to rule out a return to CIA torture

Brennan's comment on the question of whether the CIA would torture again, delivered in response to the Senate Intelligence Committee's report on torture, was quite cagey. Here's the key passage:

As far as what happens in the future, if there is some kind of challenge that we face here, the Army field manual is the established basis to use for interrogations. We CIA are not in the detention program. We are not contemplating at all getting back into the detention program, using any of those EITS, so I defer to the policymakers in future times when there is going to be the need to ensure that this country stays safe if we face a similar kind of crisis.

Brennan says, quite clearly, that the CIA has no plans to restart torturing anyone anytime soon. "EITs" refers to enhanced interrogation techniques, better known as the torture methods greenlit by the Bush administration.

However, he also suggests that the agency wouldn't oppose using torture again if "policymakers in future times" approved the methods in response to "a similar kind of crisis" as what hit the US in 2001. In other words, he is suggesting that the CIA is willing to use torture again if it is told to do so, which is not just an offer, but an endorsement of the idea that torture is an option.

Brennan's phrasing hints that he sees torture as a theoretically viable option if there becomes "the need to ensure that this country stays safe." In other words, Brennan is implying both that torture can plausibly work and that it could be ordered as a national security policy, in which case the CIA would comply.

That's obviously troubling. While torture is illegal under US law, Bush administration lawyers crafted a series of legal briefs that gave the CIA legal cover for certain acts of torture. These briefs are almost universally seen as legally defective today. When he came into office, President Obama ruled out torture in an executive order. But a future president could always overturn Obama's order.

Meanwhile, Sen. Marco Rubio, widely seen as a likely 2016 contender, is defending the CIA and bashing the Senate Intelligence report:

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