The man in charge of America’s Central Intelligence Agency launched a fierce defence of its agents last night as it came in for sustained criticism over the use of torture techniques on terror suspects in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
John Brennan, quizzed for 45 minutes by the media in a rare public appearance, said his men and women often put their lives on the line to try to protect the US and others from the kind of attacks that felled the Twin Towers in 2001.
But he admitted some of the techniques used by agents in its aftermath had been “abhorrent”, and while refraining from using the word torture, insisted the so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” were no longer used by the agency.
Mr Brennan admitted these could be both counter-productive in terms of the validity of information extracted and had the potential to encourage others to take up arms. The CIA director said he had been in close dialogue with foreign counterparts before the publication of the 6,000-word Senate report detailing the interrogation activities, many of whom he said had voiced “strong concern” and “disappointment” about its contents.
That admission came less than 48 hours after Scotland’s Lord Advocate, Frank Mulholland, ordered Police Scotland to investigate the findings in relation to a series of so-called “rendition flights” which used Prestwick Airport, among others, to transport detainees.
Former Conservative defence minister and Scottish Secretary Malcolm Rifkind, speaking last night, said UK government agencies would also want to know if Britain had somehow “benefited from information that was obtained” via torture.
Mr Brennan used emotive language to remind the world that after the 11 September 2001 attacks America’s “hearts were ripped open” and that the US “ached, it cried in pain”.
He said: “There were no easy answers and whatever your views are … this agency did a lot of things right during this difficult time to keep this country strong and secure.”
He was attempting a damage limitation exercise amid rising calls from Democrats for president Barack Obama to “purge” his administration over the Senate intelligence committee findings. But even as Mr Brennan was speaking, Senator Dianne Feinstein, who oversaw the report, was live Tweeting rebuttals to his claims using the hashtag #ReadTheReport. It included the post “CIA helps keep our nation safe, strong. Torture does not. We Must learn from our mistakes.”
The report described how the CIA operated a rogue interrogation regime in which detainees were beaten in apparent breach of the Geneva Conventions, with one man frozen to death.
The CIA also repeatedly lied to Congress, to former president George W Bush and to the American people to cover it up with – the report claims – no useful intelligence to show for it.
The report is one of the most damaging episodes in CIA history and has caused shock waves around the world. In the US, members of the Bush White House have now decided to link arms and defend their legacy, which human rights groups say makes them war criminals who should be put on trial.
Speaking in front of the press and CIA employees at the agency’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia, Mr Brennan said after 9/11 the CIA was tasked with responding to the “single greatest tragedy to befall our homeland in recent history”.
He said: “Not only were our consciences shocked and our hearts and souls ripped open, so too our collective sense of national security was shattered much like the steel, concrete, flesh and bone and lives during those fateful 77 minutes”.
He described the period as “uncharted territory for the CIA.
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He said: “There were times when CIA officers exceeded the policy guidance that was given … they were harsh, in some instances I consider them abhorrent … It was something that is certainly regrettable”.
President Obama has repeatedly refused to take sides on the debate, although he said that the CIA’s actions undermined America’s “moral authority”.
Former CIA bosses and top White House officials however did not hold back and former vice-president Dick Cheney gave a blistering interview in which he said the Senate report was “full of crap”.
Mr Cheney told Fox News that he had no regrets and would torture detainees again “in a minute”. He said: “I think it is a terrible report, deeply flawed. It’s a classic example of where politicians get together and throw professionals under the bus.”
Significantly, Mr Cheney also directly contradicted the report and said that president Bush was briefed and “knew everything he needed to know”.
Mr Cheney’s comments will refocus attention on Tony Blair amid renewed questions about what he knew of Britain’s involvement in the torture or rendition of suspects. In Scotland, the Lord Advocate has instructed Police Scotland to re-examine the report to see if any Scottish airports were used for rendition.
The CIA did carry out its own review of its post 9/11 activities by former director Leon Panetta but it was not made public, nor were the resulting memoranda given to top officials.
The New York Times has said that it “cast a particularly harsh light” on the programme and earlier this week Mark Udall, a Democrat senator, made public fresh details and said that it was a “smoking gun”. He said that one findings of the Panetta report was that the CIA “tortured detainees to confirm they didn’t have intelligence, not because they thought they did”.
Such criticism has been rejected by the agency’s former director Michael Hayden who said last night he was “stunned” by the Senate report which he called an “unrelentingly prosecutorial document”.
In a swipe at the Senate intelligence committee chair Ms Feinstein and her fellow Democrats, he added: “Since we’ve made them feel safe again, they start complaining that we did too much”.
Mr Hayden also addressed one of the more controversial aspects of the report, that detainees were subject to “rectal feeding” whereby their meals were pureed and fed through the rectums.
Last night it also emerged that Mr Obama held a meeting of his top officials to finally make good on his 2008 election pledge to close Guantanamo Bay.
The president is said to have told them he felt they were not moving fast enough.
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