John Brennan, President Obama’s nominee for Director of the CIA, testified today before the Senate Intelligence Committee. He said of waterboarding that it is “reprehensible” and “never should’ve taken place in my view.”
However, as Andrew Johnson at NRO points out, in a 2007 interview Brennan stated of enhanced interrogation techniques such as waterboarding: “There has been a lot of information that has come out from these interrogation procedures that the agency has, in fact, used against the real hard-core terrorists; it has saved lives” (emphasis added).
The two positions aren’t logically inconsistent. In theory, one could believe that an interrogation procedure saved lives but is so harsh that it shouldn’t ever be used, even so. However, applied to waterboarding, which inflicts no real physical pain, that position would be ridiculous, and Brennan didn’t express it.
Moreover, Brennan did not completely walk back his prior statement about the efficacy of waterboarding. Sen. Levin asked whether information obtained via waterboarding helped lead to Osama bin Laden. But Levin didn’t ask the question straight up. Rather he cited a report he and Sen. Feinstein prepared that attacked the efficacy of waterboarding and concluded the technique didn’t help in the search for bin Laden. Levin then asked Brennan whether he knew of any information that showed the conclusions in the report to be wrong. Brennan replied that he did not.
Brennan explained that the Feinstein-Levin report cast doubt on his prior view, e.g., his statement in 2007, about the efficacy of waterboarding. But he didn’t say it showed that view to be wrong. Rather, he testified he hasn’t studied the matter carefully enough to decide which view is correct.
A frustrated Levin, who clearly is using his power to coerce Brennan into supporting his view of history, asked Brennan to commit to reviewing the Levin-Fenstein report and providing more definite answers, once he is confirmed. Something for Brennan to do with his spare time.
Brennan also resisted Levin’s attempts to extract a statement that waterboarding is torture. Brennan said, in effect, that torture is a loaded word, that he is not a lawyer, and that he has read conflicting opinions on this question.
So Brennan’s responses to Levin show him to be without an opinion on whether waterboarding is torture and not sure about whether it has helped in the fight against terrorism, as he once believed. This leaves it unclear why Brennan is so certain the practice “should never have been used.”
The reality is that in 2007 Brennan was trying to please Republicans, while today he’s trying to please Democrats. That’s not unusual for an ambitious bureaucrat. Some CIA employees might hope for a more stand-up guy. But having been buffeted by politics for more than a decade, most probably see merit in a Director who can bend with the winds, and perhaps are thankful that Brennan didn’t blow away entirely under Levin’s questioning.
UPDATE: I don’t mean to suggest that Brennan is a good nominee for CIA Director. In my view, he has the wrong line on the war against terrorism (indeed, he refuses to acknowledge that there is such a war) and the wrong line on the Middle East. For that matter, he has the wrong line on waterboarding, the limited use of which was not “rephrensible” or even misguided.