Transcript: Sen. Saxby Chambliss’s Q&A on the nomination of John Brennan as CIA Director

Transcribed & edited by Jenny Jiang

Partial transcript of Sen. Saxby Chambliss’s Q&A on the nomination of White House Counter-Terrorism Adviser John Brennan as the next CIA Director. The Senate Intelligence Committee hearing was held on Feb. 7, 2013

Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.):

The 9/11 Commission report describes a cancelled 1998 CIA operation to capture Osama bin Laden using travel groups in Afghanistan. Former head of CIA’s Bin Laden unit told staff that you convinced Director [George] Tenet to cancel that operation. He says that following a meeting you had in Riyadh with Director Tenet, the Bin Laden unit chief, and others that you cabled National Security Adviser Sandy Berger saying the operation should be cancelled in favor of a different approach described by the 9/11 Commission as a “an all-out secret effort to persuade the Taliban to expel Bin Laden.” Now, as we know, Bin Laden was not expelled. Three months later, the Bin Laden rant was unleashed with the attack on our embassies. Did you advise Director Tenet and Security Adviser Berger against this operation and, if so, why?

 

John Brennan:

I had conversations with George Tenet at the time but I must point out, Senator, that every single CIA manager – George Tenet, his deputy, the head of the Director of Operations at the time, and other individuals, the Chief of the Counter-Terrorism Center – argued against that operation as well because it was not well-grounded in intelligence and its chance of success were minimal and it was likely that other individuals were going to be killed. And so when I was involved in those discussions, I provided the Director and others my professional advice about whether or not I thought that operation should go forward. I also was engaged in discussions with the Saudi government at the time and encouraged certain actions to be taken so we could put pressure on the Taliban as well as on Bin Laden.

 

Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.):

So I’m taking it your answer to my question is you did advise against the – in favor of the cancellation of that operation?

 

John Brennan:

I did based on what I had known at the time. I didn’t think it was a worthwhile operation when we didn’t have a chance of success.

 

Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.):

The 9/11 Commission reported that no capture plan before 9/11 ever obtained the same level of detail and preparation. Do you have any second thoughts about your recommendation to the Director to cancel that operation?

 

John Brennan:

Senator, I had no second thoughts whatsoever about my advice, which was to look heavily at this operation because the chance of success was minimal. I was not in the chain of command at that time; I was serving abroad as chief of station.

 

Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.):

As Deputy Executive Director, you received the daily updates from the time of Abu Zubaydah’s capture throughout his interrogation, including the analysis of the techniques, putting you in the position to express any concerns you had about the program before any of the most controversial techniques, including waterboarding, were ever used. Now, we found a minimum of 50 memos in the documents within the 6,000 pages on which you were copied. What steps did you take to stop CIA from moving to these techniques you now say you found objectionable at the time?

 

John Brennan:

I did not take steps to stop the CIA’s use of those techniques. I was not in the chain of command of that program. I served as Deputy Executive Director at the time. I had responsibilities for overseeing the management of the agency and all of its various functions. And I was aware of the program. I was cc’d on some of those documents, but I had no oversight of it. I wasn’t involved in its creation. I had expressed my personal objections and views to my – to some agency colleagues about certain of those EITs [enhanced interrogation techniques], such as waterboarding, nudity, and others, where I professed my personal objection to it. But I did not try to stop it because it was, you know, something that was being done in a different part of the agency under the authority of others and it was something that was directed by the administration at the time.

 

Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.):

You said you expressed your objection to other colleagues. Did you ever express any concern to Director Tenet, to John McLaughlin, Executive Director [A.B. “Buzzy”] Krongard or any other CIA leaders?

 

John Brennan:

I had a number of conversations with my agency colleagues on a broad range of issues during that period of time – not just on this program but other ones. We would have personal conversations on that.

 

Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.):

My reason particularly for naming those individuals, Mr. Brennan, is because they were the ones directly above you. Mr. McLaughlin’s been quoted in the press saying he never heard from you; he doesn’t doubt that you did this but he says he never heard from you. We just have not seen anybody who’s come forward and say they heard any objections from you with respect to these programs.

Moving on, Mr. Krongard – your boss at CIA – told the Wall Street Journal that you had a role in setting the parameters of the program and I quote “helping to seek Justice Department approval for the techniques.” He went on to say that “John would have been [part…] of that process.” How does that comport with your response to the committee that you played no role in the programs’, and I’m quoting again in your answers, “creation, execution, and oversight.”

 

John Brennan:

I respectfully disagree with my former colleague Buzzy Krongard. I was not involved in the setting – establishing the parameters of that program. I think in that same Wall Street Journal article, he goes on to say, in fact, that I was not involved in a lot of elements of that program. But I was not involved in the establishment of that program. Again, I had awareness that the agency was being asked to do this; I had awareness that the agency was going forward on it; I had some visibility into some of the activities there. But I was not part of any type of management structure or aware of most of the details.

 

Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.):

That being the case, why would you be the recipient of a minimum of 50 emails, Mr. Brennan, on the progress of the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, including the techniques used in that interrogation?

 

John Brennan:

Senator, it was probably a standard email distribution. I was on thousands upon thousands of email distributions as Deputy Executive Director. I think I was just cc’d on them; I wasn’t an action officer on it. I know of no action I took at the agency that in any way authorized through re-program funds or anything along those lines.

 

Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.):

Executive Director Krongard is said to have been an advocate of using SERE [Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape] techniques. Did he discuss with you a proposal to move to SERE techniques with Abu Zubaydah and if so, did you raise any objections?

 

John Brennan:

I don’t recall a conversation with Mr. Krongard about that particular issue.

 

Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.):

When you reviewed the intelligence the CIA was getting on Abu Zubaydah after the use of EIT, did you think the information was valuable?

 

John Brennan:

The reports that I was getting subsequent to that and in the years after that, it was clearly my impression that there was valuable information that was coming out.

 

Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.):

In a November 2007 interview, you said that information from the interrogation techniques “saved lives.” But you also said that the CIA should be out of the detention business. “The main benefit that I saw in CIA’s program was the ability to hold and question individuals about whom there was significant intelligence that they were terrorists but not necessarily evidence that could be used in the court of law.” Your view seems to be that even if we can save American lives by detaining more terrorists using only traditional techniques it would be better to kill them with a drone or let them go free rather than detain them. Can you explain the logic in that argument?

 

John Brennan:

I respectfully disagree, Senator. I never believed it’s better to kill a terrorist than to detain him. We want to detain as many terrorists as possible so we can elicit the intelligence from them in the appropriate manner so that we can disrupt…terrorist attacks. So I’m a strong proponent of doing everything possible short of killing terrorists, bringing them to justice and getting that intelligence from them.

I clearly have the impression, as you say, when I was quoted in 2007 that there was valuable intelligence that came out from those interrogation sessions. That’s why I did say that they saved lives. I must tell you, Senator, that reading this report from the committee raises serious questions about the information that I was given at the time, the impression that I had at that time.

Now, I have to determine what – based on that information as well as what CIA says, what the truth is. And at this point, Senator, I do not know what the truth is.

 

Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.):

How many high-value targets were captured during your service with the administration?

 

John Brennan:

There have been a number of individuals who have been captured, arrested, detained, interrogated, debriefed, and put away by our partners overseas, which is we have given them the capacity now – we have provided them the intelligence. And unlike in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 when a lot of these countries were both unwilling and unable to do it, we have given them that opportunity and so that’s where we’re working with our partners.

 

Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.):

How many high-value targets have been arrested, detained, and interrogated by the United States during your 4 years with the administration?

 

John Brennan:

I’ll be happy to get that information to you, Senator, in terms of those high-value targets that have been captured with U.S. intelligence support.

 

Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.):

I submit to you the answer to that is one, and it’s [Ahmed Abdulkadir] Warsame, who was put on a ship for 60 days and interrogated. Thank you.

Second round Q&A:

Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.):
In 2002, what was your knowledge of interrogation videotapes of Abu Zubaydah and did you seek any information about an Office of General Counsel review of them in 2002?
 

John Brennan:
I don’t have a recollection of that, Senator.
 

Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.):
Of the tapes or that request?
 

John Brennan:
At the time in 2002, I do not know what my involvement or knowledge was at the time of the tapes. I believe that they – I was aware of the Abu Zubaydah debriefings and interrogation sessions being taped.

Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.):
This weekend, Secretary Panetta confirmed that information that led to Bin Laden came from detainees in the CIA’s EIT program. His account comports with information we were provided immediately after the raid
and in months to follow from the CIA analysts who actually tracked down Bin Laden. These analysts told us it was detainee information that was key to them finding the courier and ultimately Bin Laden.

Now, were you briefed by any of the analysts who tracked down Bin Laden?
 

John Brennan:
Before the operation?
 

Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.):
Yes.
 

John Brennan:
Oh, absolutely, I was engaged with them.
 

Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.):
Was that the information that was given to you that it came from interrogation of detainees on whom EITs were used?
 

John Brennan:
I don’t recall if I was given that information specifically. They talked about the chain of, sort of, collection that took place that was related to some of the information that came from the detainees. And yes, so there was some there…
 

Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.):
Do you agree with Secretary Panetta’s comments?
 

John Brennan:
That there was some information that came out from there?
 

Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.):
Yes, that led to the courier.
 

John Brennan:
Senator, I now – again, looking at this document from SSCI – this report, I don’t know what the facts are, what the truth is. So I really need to look at that carefully and see what CIA’s response is because the SSCI report calls into question whether or not any of that information was unique and led to it.
 

Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.):
Fair enough. Suffice it to say, Secretary Panetta’s comments are in direct conflict with the report that came out of this committee recently. And you know I have serious concerns about that interrogation study that was voted out by committee. Now, you told me a couple of days ago when we met that the study was – and I quote – “not objective” and it was “a prosecutor’s brief written with an eye toward finding problems.” And you went on to say that you’re withholding judgement on the merits and action until you read the response. And my understanding is from what you’ve said that’s what you’re going to do.

Suppose the CIA takes the position that the study’s finding and conclusions were wrong, I think I know John Brennan well enough to know that you’re going to stand up and say whatever’s on your mind and whatever you conclude. And I’m not going to ask you for a response to that but I know that you’ll review it with an open mind and give us your thoughts and your opinions about the CIA’s response to it and how
we move forward with this.
 

John Brennan:
I assure you, Senator, I will do that.

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