On Thursday, Feb. 7, the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence will have the opportunity – indeed, the responsibility – to ask a former Bush administration official whether he sat idly by as men were tortured, or whether he should be counted among the ranks of the unsung heroes.
The committee will be considering the nomination of John Brennan, President Barack Obama's current chief counterterrorism advisor, to be director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Brennan served 25 years in the intelligence community. During the height of the CIA's illegal detention, interrogation, and rendition program, he was a top deputy to George Tenet, then the CIA director, and was tapped to run a newly created terrorist-threat analysis center that became the National Counterterrorism Center.
Shortly after leaving the CIA in 2005, Brennan called rendition – which then involved the deliberate transfer of detainees without legal process to other countries, where some faced torture – "an absolutely vital tool," claiming it had saved lives.
Under Tenet's directorship, the CIA strapped men to boards and poured water down their throats to the point of near drowning; placed them in small boxes; subjected them to extreme hot and cold; forced them to stand naked for days with their hands chained above their heads, urinating and defecating on themselves; and told them their children might be killed or their wives raped. Despite overwhelming evidence justifying a criminal investigation of Tenet and other senior officials from George W. Bush's administration, only very limited investigations have been initiated and no senior official has ever been charged.
Although the interrogation practices that the CIA used had long been considered illegal, some forms of torture were authorized by the Bush administration. One of Obama's first acts in office was to end the CIA program and renounce the torture and secret detention program.
The public remains in the dark about Brennan's role in all this. Hopefully, Obama would not have nominated him if evidence existed that he had a direct hand in implementing the CIA's illegal practices. But, given his position at the time and his close proximity to Tenet, the precise nature of his involvement needs to be disclosed.
Even if Brennan played no direct role in the torture program, it's fair to assume that he knew something about it. So, before voting for his nomination to become CIA director, the Senate should at least determine how much he knew and whether he made any attempt to object.
In recent years, Brennan has explicitly renounced some CIA torture practices such as waterboarding, calling them "not in keeping with our values as Americans" and saying that they are "a recruitment bonanza for terrorists, increase the determination of our enemies, and decrease the willingness of other nations to cooperate with us." But it's one thing for Brennan to say so after the fact. The question is whether he made these arguments at the time these techniques were being used, when his voice might have had an impact.
Silence and inaction can contribute to violence and abuse just as direct action can. History is replete with examples of men and women who have spoken out against the evils of their time, often at great personal and professional risk. While senior Bush administration officials orchestrated and oversaw a program of kidnapping, enforced disappearances, and torture in a global network of secret prisons, a number of FBI agents, CIA interrogators, and military officers opposed the use of torture and attempted to stop what they saw as a corruption of long-held American values.
When Army Sgt. Joseph Darby discovered photographs of members of his company torturing prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, he chose not to remain silent and delivered them to the Army's Criminal Investigation Command. When Alberto Mora, then the Navy general counsel, discovered the legal theories promoted by Bush administration lawyers that sought to justify torture, he vigorously campaigned against them. And when two officers in the Army's Judge Advocate General's Corps, Lt. Col. V. Stuart Couch and Lt. Col. Darrel Vandeveld, realized they were expected to prosecute terrorism suspects using evidence obtained by torture, they refused. There are many more unsung heroes, some whose names are known and some we've never heard of but who nevertheless stood up for what was right in the face of overwhelming opposition.
The sad truth, however, is that far too many people in positions of power who knew that their government was violating both domestic and international law, and that torture and disappearances were morally repugnant and counterproductive, did nothing. The Senate committee already has at its disposal a 6,000-plus page classified study examining the CIA's program in depth. If that study contains information about Brennan's role, that information should immediately be made public.
When Obama considered nominating Brennan to be CIA director four years ago, a group of 200 psychologists and others wrote an open letter to the president opposing his nomination due to his support of the "dark side" of Bush administration policies. Brennan then indicated that he did not want to be considered for an intelligence position, believing his nomination would be too distracting. Instead, Obama made him chief counterterrorism advisor, which did not require confirmation.
As counterterrorism advisor, Brennan has continued to come under fire as a leading proponent of the U.S. targeted-killing program. But he also deserves credit for having advocated for the use of the civilian criminal justice system over fatally flawed military commissions in terrorism cases. He also sought to develop and articulate a clear legal rationale for targeted killings, and he advocated a return to the CIA's role of gathering intelligence instead of carrying out lethal operations.
But the Senate should look beyond the last four years in evaluating Brennan's record. The role Brennan played as a senior intelligence official during a period when the Bush administration and the CIA "took the gloves off" is essential information. The committee should not shrink from asking these questions.
If Brennan is confirmed, one of his first tasks will be to supervise declassification of the intelligence committee's report. A firm commitment from Brennan to declassify the report would go a long way toward showing whether he is fit for the job or whether, if faced with evil again, he would do nothing.
Andrea J. Prasow is senior counterterrorism counsel at Human Rights Watch.