President Barack Obama has tried to distance himself in every way from Bush-era interrogation policies, stripping the lead role in questioning detainees from the CIA and banning the harshest tactics critics have decried as torture.
But now, Obama has chosen a man who was at the heart of Bush’s intelligence effort to play a key role in overseeing the new administration’s own interrogation policies: John Brennan, a 25-year CIA veteran who was privy to the extreme tactics Obama has declared off limits.
The White House on Tuesday refused to discuss Brennan’s exact role in the new interrogation policy. But a former CIA official familiar with the situation said Brennan — Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser — will head up a National Security Council team overseeing a new Justice Department interrogation corps, specifically chosen to interrogate the most important terror detainees.
The new interrogation unit will be led by the FBI, with the CIA in a supporting role.
This isn’t the first time Brennan has drawn controversy. When Brennan’s name was floated as a leading candidate for CIA director during Obama’s transition, liberal activists loudly questioned the possible choice, and Brennan later withdrew.
Brennan himself has defended his role in an administration that has repeatedly distanced itself from the Bush-era tactics — saying he objected to the use of waterboarding on terror suspects, both in his time at the CIA and today.
“I personally was always opposed to waterboarding and certain types of techniques, and I think there were people who supported me in that and were able to acknowledge that I was a critic of that while I was in the agency,” Brennan said earlier this month in a interview for an ABC News podcast.
Several former CIA officials said Brennan, a former senior aide to CIA director George Tenet and later head of a national center to coordinate intelligence, was clearly in the loop when the so-called Enhanced Interrogation Techniques were approved in 2002. At the time, Brennan served as the CIA’s deputy executive director.
Brennan’s critics contend assigning him to oversee future interrogation policy is the wrong approach for an administration trying to signal a clear break from the previous White House’s approach.
“He supported everything with great enthusiasm—apparently he did make claims in house…against waterboarding, but he was defending detentions, defending extraordinary renditions, enhanced interrogation techniques and secret prisons,” said Melvin Goodman, a former intelligence analyst who spent 20 years at the CIA. “Giving it to him shows that Obama is politically deaf or doesn’t care…Everything about this is wrong.”
A former FBI terrorism agent, Jack Cloonan, said Brennan’s presence at the top ranks of the CIA during the extreme interrogations will impact his role in the new apparatus.
“I think everyone understands he has a cloud over his head….He clearly knew at least part of what was going on. I think that is a concession maybe to the Agency,” Cloonan said. However, he said he still supports the new arrangement and believes the prominent role for the FBI will ensure that future interrogations don’t go too far.
But a former colleague said he thinks Brennan, who knows Arabic and also served as a CIA station chief in Saudi Arabia, is a good fit to oversee future interrogation efforts. “He’s a good choice to do it,” the ex-official said. “At some point, someone has to stop taking people out of play just because they were somewhere near this program. That’s just not right.”
White House spokesmen did not respond to requests to interview Brennan for this article, nor would they say whether Brennan was interviewed for the 2004 CIA Inspector General’s report which examined the Bush-era interrogations. The report was released Monday.
Former CIA officials and others say Brennan was never in a decision-making role in regards to which interrogation tactics to use, but as the deputy to the agency’s executive director from 2001 to 2003, was in the midst of the discussions about which tactics to use and what to do with the intelligence gained.
“You know a lot in that role. Lots of stuff goes through your office,” a former CIA official said.
“He was privy to or aware of every policy that was carried out but was not in a policymaking role on detainee matters,” another former CIA executive said.
Obama aides are stressing that the role of the National Security Council in future interrogations will be limited and supervisory in nature.
“The White House is not going to be involved in any of the tactical, operational decisions that are made,” a senior administration official said Monday during a telephone briefing on the new interrogation unit.
From 1999 to 2001, Brennan was chief of staff to CIA Director George Tenet. Brennan then moved into the deputy executive director slot before becoming the first director of the Interagency Terrorist Threat Integration Center later that year. He retired in 2005 and went to the private sector before joining Obama’s NSC earlier this year.
Brennan has said his past opposition to some of the tactics is lost on his critics.
“It has been immaterial to the critics that I have been a strong opponent of many of the policies of the Bush administration such as the pre-emptive war in Iraq and coercive interrogation tactics, to include waterboarding,” Brennan wrote.
While Brennan’s opposition to waterboarding was known to some in CIA circles, his attitude at the time toward other enhanced interrogation practices, such as sleep deprivation and confinement boxes, is more murky.
In the recent ABC interview, Brennan said he was in agreement with Obama’s decision to limit future interrogations to the techniques listed in the Army Field Manual, but the ex-CIA official stopped short of saying he has always subscribed to that view.
“The president has decided that none of these enhanced interrogation techniques will continue,” Brennan said. “My views, I believe, are entirely consistent right now with where the president is on that issue.”
The White House said Monday that Obama will leave in place the ban he ordered in January on the enhanced techniques but continue renditions and transfers of terrorist suspects for detention abroad.
In a 2007 interview with the New Yorker, Brennan seemed to defend the aggressive interrogations. “Would the U.S. be handicapped if the CIA was not, in fact, able to carry out these types of detention and debriefing activities? I would say, yes,” he said.