Some Less Obvious Aspects of CIA Director John Brennan’s Presser

When you are faced with a political hatchet job like the partisan Democrat Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program and you are President Obama’s Director of Central Intelligence (D/CIA), you have a couple of options.

You can resign in protest, firing off one shot and hope to make a big noise. You might get a page 14 mention in the New York Times and a minute on the CBS Evening News; it will probably be phrased as “CIA Director Quits Under Fire in Torture Scandal,” spinning it as if he is quitting in disgrace rather than in protest.

This can be seen by conservatives as the principled position. But is it the best for the country, or for the men and women in the CIA?

Or you can make a stand for your Agency in a precedent-setting news conference, defend your people, give some nods to your boss the president but make the clear disagreements with a partisan report while not naming names or parties.

When I watched Director Brennan’s press conference, my first reaction when I heard him saying he agreed with the president on not using enhanced interrogation techniques (EITs), I thought “the suck-up is protecting his job.”

Many commentators and journalists were dissatisfied that Brennan didn’t advance the story, or didn’t say anything concrete; they thought he was too vague, too evasive. Wow, who would expect vague or evasive in Washington (OK, in Virginia)?

But as I listened, and later read the transcript, I realized that what the D/CIA was doing was (probably) staying in place to protect his Agency and the people working there. And protecting the American people. He was also giving some real information if you paid attention.

Here are some points, subtle and not-so-subtle, which have not been discussed all that much that I have seen or read since the press conference.

  • Brennan supports the claims of Jose Rodriguez, Chief of the Counterterrorism Center of the CIA, and others that members of Congress and President Bush were fully briefed on the program.  While Brennan does state that there were instances where representations were “inaccurate, imprecise or fell short of our tradecraft standards,” he categorically denies that the agency “systematically and intentionally” misled Congress or the public.  What is perhaps most telling about this is his buried mention of a change in procedure he has implemented: “For example, as a result of our own investigations and our review of the committee’s report, CIA has taken steps to… improve our recordkeeping for interactions with the Congress.”  In other words, he is going to make sure the CIA has very careful documentation of every briefing they give Congress so that in the future members cannot claim that the CIA did not tell them this information, and that members did not give the CIA approval.  The CIA will be able to prove what was briefed and what members said during the briefings.  Never again, Senator Pelosi.  Never again, Senator Rockefeller.  Never again, Senator Feinstein.
  • Brennan refused to be sucked into the “torture” debate.  When asked by Ken Delaney of the Associated Press if Brennan agreed that some of the techniques used against detainees amounted to torture, Brennan said they exceeded the bounds of authorized actions and were harsh, but never once during the press conference did he use the word “torture.”  This clearly in my mind marks him as an Agency man, not the president’s man.  Had he been solely worried about saving his job, or been a Panetta-style Democrat, he would have not had a problem using the “T” word.  It would have been a simple enough concession to make unless he had a principled belief against using it.  By defiantly refusing to use the word that the Democrats (and sadly many Republicans like John McCain and George Will and libertarians like the addle-brained Andrew Napolitano of Fox News) throw out without a coherent definition, he is declaring a significant gap between himself and the president.  It won’t necessarily cost him his job, but won’t get him a Christmas card, either.  It was a bold move.
  • Brennan saved his job – allowing him to protect his Agency – by declaring he supported the president’s decision to stop using EITs, then backhandedly acknowledged that they were really, really effective.  Sure, he stated it was “unknowable” if the information they yielded eventually could have been obtained through other methods, but he went out of his way to point out  (several times) that a) he “fundamentally disagree[ed]” with the report’s conclusion that detainees subjected to EITs did not produce useful intelligence, b) this information only came after they had been subjected to EITs, not before, c) thus waterboarding (or other EITs) was not the first step (and thus lesser techniques had failed), and d) it was “unknowable” if other techniques could have elicited this information.  Of course it is unknowable if other techniques could have elicited the same information; one cannot say for certain that under some hypothetical set of circumstances, some form of questioning, some skilled interrogator, might have elicited the information without EITs.  As the saying goes, anything is possible.  But we do know that prior to the use of EITs this information had not been obtained through the techniques used up until that point, including the range of interrogation techniques from the Army Field Manual.
  • Why is it important for Brennan to stay in his position?  It was not just a matter of placing things in context that the D/CIA spent the first fourteen or so paragraphs of his prepared remarks reminding us of the history of 9/11 and his role at the CIA as deputy executive director in the days following the attacks.  He reminds us that he was there, and he understands what his role was, what was needed, what the nation and Congress asked of him and his Agency.  He understands how unprepared the CIA was, and why.  Unspoken, but surely remembered, was how devastated the CIA was after a similar congressional committee chaired by Democrat Frank Church of Idaho in the mid-1970s led to the gutting of the American intelligence agencies that led, in turn, in no small part to the intelligence failures leading up to 9/11/01.  This is part and parcel of why the CIA was unprepared for the job they had to do.  By remaining in his post now, Brennan prevents President Obama from naming someone as D/CIA who was not present on 9/11, someone who buys into the torture narrative, who would seek to diminish the effectiveness of our intelligence agencies just as our president has sought to diminish the effectiveness of our military and has refused to use military assets as recommended by his military experts.  Imagine the appointment of someone with the limited intelligence, experience and stature of a John Kerry to the position of D/CIA to replace John Brennan should he resign.  Brennan walked the fine line between supporting his Agency and staff, and supporting his boss to keep his job.  It was a rather masterful performance considering the balancing act he had to perform.
  • Brennan remains as a wall against the Democrats’ claims, and one they cannot dismiss as easily as they can Vice President Dick Cheney or Jose Rodriguez.  By remaining, Brennan can also not only help maintain order within the CIA but maintain relations with foreign intelligence services.  Perhaps the biggest casualty of this criminally irresponsible fit of political pique and self-aggrandizement by the Democrats is the damage it does to the delicate relationships we maintain with friendly (and not-so-friendly) intelligence agencies.  We have complex intelligence-sharing relationships with both traditional allies and countries with whom we have some shared interests but very tenuous ties.  Many of these relationships are very fragile, with a minimum of trust between the parties.  Fear of exposure is real, because exposure means death for many of these partners.  When Democrats – and even our president through his spokesman – indicate that they understand that an unclassified report may lead to the exposure and possible death of foreign assets but “exposing the truth is more important” we shatter that tenuous tie and make it that much more difficult for our intelligence and diplomatic agencies to gather intelligence and make deals.  Brennan indicated in the Q&A after his remarks that he was busy working the phones even before the report was made public trying to minimize the damage beforehand and prepare the ground.  He and his people will probably be spending most of their time for months trying to undo what Senator Feinstein and her unthinking comrades did for political gain heedless of consequences she should have, better than almost anyone in government, understood.

Only time will tell if Senator Feinstein has done as much lasting damage to American intelligence gathering as Senator Church did in 1975 and 1976. I’m hoping that Director Brennan has stayed on to hold his Agency together and maintain our intelligence relationships across the globe rather than to just keep his job.

We may all pay the price if he cannot.

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