John Brennan’s knowable “unknowables”

John Brennan spoke to the press yesterday about Dianne Feinstein’s travesty of a report on past CIA interrogation practices. It’s highly unusual for the CIA director to hold take questions from the media, but Brennan did.

Unusual though Brennan’s appearance was, the Washington Post, which has devoted its front page to story after story on Feinstein’s hit-job, relegates Brennan to page 14. The Post, it appears, is only marginally more interested than Sen. Feinstein in what the CIA has to say.

Moreover, the Post’s headline — “CIA chief: Gains from interrogation tactics ‘unkowable'” — offers a skewed summary of what Brennan tried to say. Brennan was clear that detainees subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques provided information that they previously had withheld and that this information was used to good effect by the CIA. As Don Rumsfeld might say, this is a known knowable.

What, then, is “unknowable”? Brennan said he could not conclude that when these detainees provided useful information it was the direct result of the enhanced interrogation techniques.

Brennan is being philosophically modest. Sure, it’s possible that hardcore al Qaeda members who hadn’t talked before they were waterboarded (for example) talked afterwards for reasons other than the waterboarding. Maybe, for no particular reason, they suddenly saw the error of their terrorist ways and decided to dedicate themselves to helping keep America safe.

But any reasonable person would infer a causal relationship between the waterboarding and the disclosure of useful information by hardened terrorists who previously had refused to cooperate. If this isn’t “knowable,” it’s a damn good bet.

A separate issue is whether these terrorists would eventually have spilled their guts had other methods of interrogation been used. This “counter-factual” question is inherently more speculative. However, we can be confident that the less harsh techniques used by the CIA interrogators at the outset weren’t producing useful information. I doubt that the interrogators went straight to waterboarding.

Moreover, “Jason Beale,” a longtime CIA man has said:

I know that we couldn’t have collected the same information using standard techniques because I was an expert in using standard techniques — I used them thousands of times over two decades — and the notion that I could have convinced the detainees. . .to provide closely-held information (or any information at all) without the use of enhanced interrogation techniques is laughable. There is zero chance. Zero.

Feinstein’s committee didn’t talk to “Beale” or to anyone with the CIA.

Feinstein told the Post that she knows the useful information disclosed thanks to enhanced interrogation could have been obtained through other means. She says that, in fact, it was obtained through human intelligence and other agencies.

Feinstein appears to be referring to the fact that names revealed by Gitmo detainees appeared in various files. But the existence of a name in a file — one name out of hundreds — is of very limited use. It’s a far cry from the kind of useful intelligence one receives when a member of bin Laden’s circle starts talking with specificity about that person.

Feinstein exhibits none of Brennan’s philosophical modesty. People trying to rewrite history for personal reasons never do.

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