CIA Has Disciplined Agents for Abuses During Interrogations: Director

CIA Director John O. Brennan
CIA Director John O. Brennan

CIA Director John Brennan on Thursday told U.S. senators that agents and managers have been held "accountable" for widespread abuses in the interrogations of terror suspects but he declined to say how.

"The agency over the course of the last several years took actions to address the shortcomings that we have fully acknowledged," Brennan said in response to questions from Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing.

"In the detention and interrogation program, there was individual accountability that was taken as well as accountability for some of those management and systemic failures," he added, but didn't say how many agents had been disciplined, how they had been punished, or whether they were still on the payroll.

The director said he would be "happy to address" those details in a classified session.

CIA agents involved in the interrogation programs dating to the administration of George W. Bush have essentially been kept out of prosecution by U.S. courts as opposed to the military, where numerous service members have been court-martialed on charges stemming from the military's detention of suspected terrorists and enemy combatants.

For example, 11 U.S. service members faced courts-martial over the abuses at the Abu Ghraib detention facility in Iraq in 2003.

Wyden began his questioning by citing new documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union under a Freedom of Information Act request detailing more abuses by CIA agents in the use of what were called "enhanced interrogation techniques," including waterboarding.

Wyden noted that the CIA's own internal investigation three years ago found that there were "significant shortcomings" in the conduct of the interrogations and also concluded that agency "must ensure that accountability extends to those responsible."

Wyden said he was unaware of any CIA agent being held responsible and asked Brennan if that were still the case "for the systemic failures that the CIA has acknowledged."

Brennan responded, "Any type of systemic failure is going to be related to the individual's failure either to provide the type of management and oversight, or the performance" of the interrogations.

Wyden then asked for a "yes" or "no" response on whether individuals had been held accountable, and Brennan said, "yes."

President Barack Obama in 2009 banned the use of "enhanced interrogation techniques" to include waterboarding, but the question of how the CIA, law enforcement and the military should deal with detainees and suspected terrorists to gain intelligence has resurfaced in the presidential campaign.

Presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump has called for a return to the extreme methods, as well as new, undescribed methods that are "a hell of a lot worse" than waterboarding.

In March, Joint Chiefs Chairman Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford was asked at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing by Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and a foe of Trump, for his thoughts on a return to harsh interrogation techniques and on the killing of the families of terrorists, which was also advocated by Trump.

"Our men and women -- they go to war with the values of our nation," Dunford said. "Those kinds of activities that you described are inconsistent with the values of our nation. And quite frankly, I think it would have an adverse effect. One of them would be on the morale of the force. And frankly, what you are suggesting are things that actually aren't legal for them to do anyway."

Dror Ladim, a staff lawyer for the ACLU, said, "The military has been better for sure than the CIA" in holding individuals responsible for abuses of detainees and suspects.

"It's certainly true that there have been a substantial number of courts-martial coming out of Abu Ghraib" and other cases, he said, "but even with the military, they've focused on low-level people" rather than those in charge.

There has never been a criminal prosecution for abuses by the CIA in the war on terror, Ladim said. If the CIA has held agents accountable in other ways, "they should explain it publicly, not in private," he said. The only disciplinary action taken by the CIA that he was aware of was in the case of two CIA lawyers who were given "verbal admonitions," he said.

In his 2014 memoir, "Worthy Fights," Leon Panetta, the former CIA director and later defense secretary, wrote that Obama rejected his advice by opting to release documents related to agency's enhanced interrogation program.

Obama took pains to steer clear of jeopardizing his relationship with the agency, Panetta wrote, and "had comforting words for officers of the CIA: 'In releasing these memos it is our intention to assure those who carried out their duties relying in good faith upon legal advice from the Department of Justice that they will not be subject to prosecution.'"

During a subsequent meeting with top agency officials at the CIA's headquarters in Langley, Virginia, Obama "acknowledged that his decision to release the memos had come over my objections, and stressed that he understood the reservations CIA officers had regarding a review of practices that he had deplored but that they had undertaken with authorization," Panetta wrote.

"As he had a few days earlier, he stressed that no one would be prosecuted who had stayed within the legal authority laid out in the memos," Panetta wrote.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at

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