AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Today, the head of the CIA defended the agency's use of harsh and abusive interrogation practices in the years after 9/11. John Brennan spoke in the lobby of CIA Headquarters next to the Memorial Wall, which includes dozens of stars, each honoring an officer killed in the line of duty. Agency employees sat in the first three rows, reporters behind them. Brennan disputed key findings of the report by Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
JOHN BRENNAN: The record simply does not support the study's inference that the agency repeatedly, systematically and intentionally misled others on the effectiveness of the program.
CORNISH: But the CIA director also acknowledged mistakes the agency made during the five years the harsh interrogation program was used. NPR's Tom Bowman was at the CIA today, and he's now here in the studio. And, Tom, to begin, how did John Brennan defend the use of these harsh interrogation tactics, included waterboarding?
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Well, Audie, at the start, he pointed out these techniques were approved by the Bush White House and the Justice Department at the time. And this, of course, was right after the 9/11 attack, and he offered vivid recollections of that time. But he admitted there were mistakes - that the CIA was unprepared to run a detention and interrogation program. He also made a distinction between the tactics that were authorized, like waterboarding, and things that were not, such as holding a power drill to a detainee's head, threatening him. Of those things, he said, quote, "I consider them abhorrent," but he would not go so far as to call them torture.
CORNISH: Now, did Brennan continue to make the case that the harsh tactics were part of the official program - that were part of the official program - that they worked?
BOWMAN: Well, he did so, but in a watch more careful way. Retired CIA officials, like General Mike Hayden, John McLaughlin, who was on this program, says there's a clear connection between the use of these harsh tactics and valuable intelligence. Brennan did not go that far, and let's listen to what he said.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
BRENNAN: But let me be clear. We have not concluded that it was the use of EITs within that program that allowed us to obtain useful information from detainees subjected to them. The cause and effect relationship between the use of EITs and useful information subsequently provided by the detainee is, in my view, unknowable.
CORNISH: And we hear John Brennan there using the term EIT for enhanced interrogation techniques. Is he saying that these tactics worked or not?
BOWMAN: So what he's basically saying is that within the interrogation program, there were harsh techniques used - these EITs. And there were routine techniques used on key detainees. Now these people did, he says, give useful information at some point, but he's saying you can't do a cause-and-effect. You can't say harsh techniques produced the useful information. But at the same time, he's saying the Senate report is wrong to say that no valuable information came from this program.
CORNISH: It seems like the CIA director is ambivalent or trying to walk a fine line. I mean, saying that it probably worked, but one can't really know - I mean, what are we hearing?
BOWMAN: Well, you know, I think that's right, and that was the sense today at the CIA. Now, keep in mind that the president he works for has said this is all clearly torture. But in front of Brennan at the speech were dozens of CIA employees, so he admitted mistakes, but he also defended the agency today.
Still, he also gave hints of his personal views that these techniques have problems. He said that the use of coercive methods has a, quote, "strong prospect for resulting in false information." And he said the job for the CIA is more challenging if you get false information, and that's precisely what the Senate report said. They said these coercive tactics lead you down at the wrong path, lead to false information.
CORNISH: That's NPR's Tom Bowman. He was at the CIA this afternoon for director John Brennan's response to the Senate report on harsh interrogations. Tom, thank you.
BOWMAN: You're welcome, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.