Is John Brennan Really A Torture Advocate?

Created: November 25, 2008 10:00 | Last updated: July 31, 2020 00:00

A coalition of psychiatrists sent an open letter to Barack Obama yesterday urging him not to appoint John Brennan, the former head of the Terrorist Threat Integration Center (now revamped into the National Counterterrorism Center), as the head of the CIA. Brennan, a longtime CIA official, stands accused of being a torture advocate in the days after 9/11:

According to his own statements, Mr. Brennan was a supporter of the “dark side” policies, wishing only to have some legal justification supplied in order to protect CIA operatives.

Except the evidence presented for this proposition isn’t at all compelling. Much of it requires excising the context of Brennan’s remarks.

First is a Frontline interview from 2006. Here’s what the psychiatric coalition quotes from Brennan:

I think George [Tenet] had two concerns. One is to make sure that there was that legal justification, as well as protection for CIA officers who are going to be engaged in some of these things, so that they would not be then prosecuted or held liable for actions that were being directed by the administration. So we want to make sure the findings and other things were done probably with the appropriate Department of Justice review.

If you read the interview in context — seriously, click through the link — you’ll see that Brennan is describing Tenet’s thinking at the time. He’s not making a normative judgment, he’s walking the viewer through the narrative. (As someone who’s been interviewed for Frontline about George Tenet — alas, my interview was left on the cutting room floor — I can tell you that the reporters ask questions in such a way to elicit the greatest you-are-there responses.) Check out what else Brennan says about torture, which the psychiatric coalition doesn’t quote:

Hopefully, that “dark side” is not going to be something that’s going to forever tarnish the image of the United States abroad and that we’re going to look back on this time and regret some of the things that we did, because it is not in keeping with our values. …

Sometimes there are actions that we are forced to take, but there need to be boundaries beyond which we are going to recognize that we’re not going to go because we still are Americans, and we are supposed to be representing something to people in this country and overseas. So the dark side has its limits.

This is probably a more fulsome quote for Brennan’s full views on interrogation. It probably shades too far into the Dark Side for many progressives — “sometimes there are actions that we are forced to take,” those actions remaining unspecified — but even still, it expresses the normative judgment that there need to be bright-line restrictions to prohibit… well, it’s not clear exactly, but the preceding paragraph expressing “regret” for torture strongly suggests that Brennan feels we shouldn’t have tortured people. Some advocate of torture.

Second is this quote from National Journal:

Even though people may criticize what has happened during the two Bush administrations, there has been a fair amount of continuity. A new administration, be it Republican or Democrat — you’re going to have a fairly significant change of people involved at the senior-most levels. And I would argue for continuity in those early stages. You don’t want to whipsaw the [intelligence] community. You don’t want to presume knowledge about how things fit together and why things are being done the way they are being done. And you have to understand the implication, then, of making any major changes or redirecting things. I’m hoping there will be a number of professionals coming in who have an understanding of the evolution of the capabilities in the community over the past six years, because there is a method to how things have changed and adapted.

Again, if you read in context, Brennan’s making a bureaucratic point. The psychiatric coalition is implying that Brennan means to preserve the Bush torture regime. What he means — and what you often hear from longtime officials across the national-security apparatus — is that there are downsides to ripping everything up impulsively: people don’t know what the rules are. And that’s hardly a problem for Barack Obama alone: something that really, really bothered CIA about the so-called Dark Side is that operatives didn’t know if they’d be prosecuted for doing things that the Bush administration wanted. I suppose you could rejoinder that we don’t want someone who loses the moral forest for the bureaucratic trees. But if there’s going to be someone to get the CIA out of the torture business, it’ll probably need to be someone who understands the internal culture of the agency.

Finally, I’ve done a fair amount of reporting over the years into the intelligence community and torture. And Brennan’s name has simply not come up in any significant way. I just did a quick refresher into some of the best investigative reporting on the subject — Jane Mayer’s “The Dark Side,” Ron Suskind’s “The One Percent Doctrine,” Bart Gellman’s “Angler,” and Jim Risen’s “State of War” — and Brennan isn’t linked to torture in any of them. Neither does George Tenet’s memoir portray Brennan as having anything to do with interrogation policy.

Of course, this could simply be a failure of reporting. There’s a straightforward way of settling that question. The Obama administration could declassify every piece of secret instruction and hidden memorandum about torture involving the CIA. Then we’ll see whether Brennan is implicated. For now, at least, given the evidence on hand, the psychiatric coalition is pinning the wrong man for the crime.