Director John Brennan Says CIA Will Not Torture Terror Suspects Again CIA Director John Brennan says in a new interview that if he were ordered to torture detainees today — as presidential candidate Donald Trump said he would order if elected — Brennan and the agency would not comply. NPR explores the difficult legacy for Brennan and other intelligence officers of the George W. Bush-era actions by the CIA.
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Director John Brennan Says CIA Will Not Torture Terror Suspects Again

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Director John Brennan Says CIA Will Not Torture Terror Suspects Again

Director John Brennan Says CIA Will Not Torture Terror Suspects Again

Director John Brennan Says CIA Will Not Torture Terror Suspects Again

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/473850522/473850523" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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CIA Director John Brennan says in a new interview that if he were ordered to torture detainees today — as presidential candidate Donald Trump said he would order if elected — Brennan and the agency would not comply. NPR explores the difficult legacy for Brennan and other intelligence officers of the George W. Bush-era actions by the CIA.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Now let's listen to two opposing views on what should be allowed when it comes to questioning terror suspects.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: Torture works, OK, folks? Believe me. It works, OK? And waterboarding is your minor form, but we should go much stronger than waterboarding.

SHAPIRO: That's Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaking at a campaign event in South Carolina. Contrast that with what CIA director John Brennan had to say in an interview airing tonight on NBC.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN BRENNAN: Do not agree to having any CIA officer carrying out waterboarding again.

SHAPIRO: With us now to help understand this debate is NPR national security correspondent Mary Louise Kelly. Hey, Mary Louise.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: OK, John Brennan was pretty clear there. He says the CIA will not waterboard. Is that the end of the story?

KELLY: Well, as long as John Brennan is running the CIA, I would say it is - but a couple of points here. One is that whoever wins in November will pick his or her own CIA director. When I interviewed Brennan earlier this year, he hinted that he wouldn't mind being asked to stay on, but that would be unusual - more likely that there will be a new director in place who's - will be in line with whatever president they are serving.

The other point to mention here about Brennan is the baggage that he brings to this conversation because he was there at the agency in the days after 9/11 when the CIA was asked to take on this job of detaining and interrogating terror suspects. Brennan has said he always opposed waterboarding and other extreme interrogation techniques. He has also admitted that he did not forcefully intervene to stop them, and that has come back to haunt his career. The first time that he was in the running to run the CIA back in 2008, he withdrew his name because of this very issue.

SHAPIRO: Well, if the next CIA director may be someone else, how do other CIA officials feel about this? Do they share Brennan's view?

KELLY: Well, you talk to anybody, Ari, at the CIA who was serving in those years after 9/11, and I spoke to several of them today. They will tell you that they got burned, that they were ordered to do something, that they were assured it was legal. And then they will tell you the rules changed, and suddenly along came grand juries. Along came congressional investigations.

I suspect Brennan speaks for a whole generation of CIA officers who are inclined to push back hard against any push to restart this program. One of the more colorful comments along those lines worth noting comes from - it comes from a predecessor of Brennan's in running the CIA. This is Michael Hayden, who was CIA director in the tail end of the Bush administration. He has said, and I'm quoting, "if you want somebody waterboarded, bring your own damn bucket."

SHAPIRO: Wow.

KELLY: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: Well, if the next president wants to bring back waterboarding, could a President Trump or somebody else actually legally do that?

KELLY: You know, the thing here is that the entire legal landscape has changed. President Obama has banned waterboarding. On top of that, Congress last year passed a law banning waterboarding and other controversial interrogation tactics. On top of that, the Justice Department has withdrawn the memo that provided the legal basis for the program in the first place. So undoing all of that - is it impossible - no. Would it be easy? I don't know.

SHAPIRO: And Donald Trump is not the only one talking about this. Senator Ted Cruz has also talked along similar lines.

KELLY: Ted Cruz has said he would not bring back widespread use of waterboarding, but he also says he would do whatever it takes to keep the country safe. And that last point, I think, raises an important question. I mean, put aside all of the campaign trail rhetoric. The question at the heart of this is, how far should a democracy go in trying to prevent a terrorist attack?

I mean - and that pendulum shifts. It shifts the farther away we get from the 9/11 attacks. It would almost certainly shift again if a Paris- or Brussels-style attack were to unfold here on American soil. And I think that's why this current debate, waterboarding - back in the news - why it's worth paying attention to.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR national security correspondent Mary Louise Kelly. Thanks, Mary Louise.

KELLY: You're welcome.

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