CSP, by Fred Fleitz:
CIA Director John Brennan did some good in his unprecedented CIA press conference on the report released this week by Democratic members of the Senate Intelligence Committee on the enhanced interrogation program. He defended the Agency and its employees from unfair attacks on its efforts to stop further terrorist attacks after 9/11. He disputed claims in the report that the CIA lied to Congress about the enhanced interrogation program. He noted that the Agency stayed in regular contact with Congress and the Justice Department about this program and self-reported when things went wrong. He stressed how unfair it was that the investigation failed to interview any CIA officials. Brennan also decried the investigation’s failure to consider that the enhanced interrogation program was initiated in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks when U.S. officials were fearful of further al-Qaeda terrorist attacks.
I was glad to hear Brennan say these things. However, he undermined his message by also straddling the fence on the value of the enhanced interrogation program in an attempt to win political support from congressional Democrats when he said that that although detainees subjected to enhanced interrogation produced “useful information,” he claimed the cause and effect relationship between the interrogations and obtaining useful information “is unknowable.” Senator Feinstein quickly praised these statements but added that she disagreed “that it is ‘unknowable’ whether information needed to stop terrorist attacks could be obtained from other sources.”
Last August I called for John Brennan to resign after he mishandled an incident when Democratic Senate staff improperly removed classified documents from a CIA facility during the enhanced interrogation investigation. Senator Feinstein misrepresented the CIA’s actions as spying on Congress. I suspect Brennan is trying to win back the support of Feinstein and other Senate Democrats after this incident by his comments that hedged on the value of the enhanced interrogation program.
Brennan could have served the interests of the CIA and U.S. national security better by firmly standing behind this program like former CIA Directors Goss, Tenet, and Hayden did and not engaging in a strange epistemological argument on what is “knowable.” Goss, Tenet, and Hayden, who worked more closely on this program than Brennan, believe it is “knowable” that the enhanced interrogation program produced unique, time-sensitive intelligence on terrorism threats that could not have been obtained through other means.
This also used to be Brennan’s position. According to the Wall Street Journal, a March 2009 memo to the Senate Intelligence Committee signed by Brennan said: “CIA assesses that most, if not all, of the timely intelligence acquired from detainees in this program would not have been discovered or reported by any other means.” Brennan also didn’t make this “unknowable” argument when he presented the CIA’s rebuttal to the Senate report last year.
Brennan’s hedging on the enhanced interrogation program’s reflects an unfortunate trend toward watered-down analysis and risk aversion by CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies due to the firestorm of criticism it faced in the 2000s after intelligence failures related to the 9/11 terrorist attacks and Saddam Hussein’s WMD programs. To avoid being wrong or alienating anyone in Congress, intelligence analysis since the mid -2000s on controversial issues such as Iran’s nuclear program became increasingly bland and consensus-based. Pressure has been put on intelligence analysts and agencies to support a consensus corporate line in their analysis to avoid being wrong and attracting congressional criticism.
Intelligence officials have tried to discredit any agencies or analysts who break from the corporate line on analysis. This happened in April 2013 when Congressman Doug Lamborn (R-CO) inadvertently revealed a classified finding from a Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) report that he said “assesses with moderate confidence the North currently has nuclear weapons capable of delivery by ballistic missiles, however the reliability will be low.” Senior U.S. intelligence officials immediately dismissed the DIA report cited by Lamborn as an outlier as did the Obama administration. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper read a statement that said the DIA report “is not [his emphasis] an Intelligence Community assessment.”
U.S. intelligence analysis should be written the way Director William Casey insisted it be written: analysts must provide their best assessment and dare to be wrong. Intelligence analysts shouldn’t be pulling their punches because of how their work might be received by the White House or Congress. Brennan’s hedging on the value of the enhanced interrogation program is the latest indication that American intelligence analysis is being driven by political considerations and has a long way to go to return to the high standard demanded by Director Casey so it produces the incisive and bold assessments needed to protect our country in a dangerous world.