CIA head suggests he’ll quit if demanded to return to waterboarding

Moriah Ratner

The head of the CIA reiterated on Wednesday that he would not allow his agency to carry out brutal interrogations like those called for by Donald Trump, and appeared to suggest he would step down if a future president demanded him to do so.

In remarks at the Brookings Institution, John Brennan expanded on his previous opposition to waterboarding and other extreme interrogation techniques, which President Obama and others call torture.   

{mosads}“I’m not going to be the director of CIA that gives that order. I think they’re going to need to find another director,” Brennan said.

The remarks on Wednesday were an intensification of the CIA head’s opposition to Trump’s call to employ waterboarding and methods “a hell of a lot worse” in response to the brutality of extremist groups such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The presumptive Republican presidential nominee has described the tactics as torture, but insisted that they are necessary to defeat ISIS.

Brennan on Wednesday defended the use of the Bush-era techniques, which had thrust his agency into one of its greatest periods of tumult in recent memory.

“The agencies’ detention and interrogation program, I believe, was instrumental in keeping this country safe in the aftermath of 9/11,” he said. “There were individuals that were subjected to these [enhanced interrogation techniques] that subsequent to that provided information that was in fact credible and worthwhile for pursuit.”

In the past, Brennan’s support for the past use of enhanced interrogations has become a source of criticism from ardent opponents of the practice. Brennan had expressed his personal opposition to some of the practices while they were occurring, he said during his Senate confirmation hearings, but he was in another part of the agency and did not attempt to stop them.

But the reputational damage to the CIA and the U.S. was too great to allow it to return, Brennan maintained.

“I know that there has been calls for waterboarding or worse or whatever else,” Brennan said, in an apparent direct response to Trump. “As long as I’m the director of CIA, we are not going to go down that road again.”

The term of the CIA director has no fixed length, and it would be up to the next president to decide whether to keep Brennan on or cast about for someone else to lead the spy agency. 

The use of waterboarding, sleep deprivation and other tactics are banned under U.S. law.

Brennan appeared to draw a distinction between controversial tactics such as waterboarding and an expansive use of drone strikes, which are limited by presidential orders.

“The CIA follows the guidance that comes from the commander in chief,” he said in response to a question about drone strikes.

“But if this president or the next president decided to change existing direction and policy guidance, it is the agency’s responsibility to carry out that policy to the best of its ability.”

“If a president were to order the agency to carry out waterboarding or something else, it will be up to the director of CIA and others within CIA to decide whether or not that direction or order is something they will carry out in good conscience,” he added.

This story was updated at 3:32 p.m.


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