Is Waterboarding Torture? Brennan: ‘I’m Not a Lawyer’

Elizabeth Harrington | February 8, 2013 | 5:17am EST
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CIA Director nominee John Brennan testifies on Capitol Hill on Thursday, Feb. 7, 2013, during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

( – White House counterterrorism chief John Brennan, nominated to head the CIA, on Thursday ducked a question at his confirmation hearing on whether waterboarding constitutes as “torture.” “I’m not a lawyer,” he told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

“You’ve said publicly that you believe waterboarding is inconsistent with American values, it’s something that should be prohibited, it goes beyond the bounds of what a civilized society should employ,” said Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.).  “My question is this: In your opinion, does waterboarding constitute torture?”

“The Attorney General [Eric Holder] has referred to waterboarding as torture,” Brennan said.  “Many people have referred to it as torture, the attorney general, the premiere law enforcement officer and enforcer of this country.  And as you well know, and we’ve had this discussion Senator, the term torture has a lot of legal implications.”

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“It is something that should have been banned long ago, it never should have taken place, in my view,” he said.  “And therefore, it is—if I were to go to CIA it would never, in fact, be brought back.”

“Do you have a personal opinion as to whether waterboarding is torture?” Levin asked.

“I have a personal opinion that waterboarding is reprehensible and it is something that should not be done,” Brennan said.  “And again, I am not a lawyer, Senator, and I can’t address that question.”

Levin then asked, “Well, you’ve read opinions as to whether or not waterboarding is torture.  Do you accept those opinions of the Attorney General?  That’s my question.”

“Senator, you know, I’ve read a lot of legal opinions,” Brennan said.  “I read an Office of Legal Counsel opinion in the previous administration that said in fact waterboarding could be used, so from the standpoint of that, I cannot point to a single legal document on this issue.”

“But as far as I’m concerned, waterboarding is something that never should have been employed,” he said.  “And as far as I’m concerned never will be, if I have anything to do with it.”

While he now opposes waterboarding, Brennan defended the practice in 2007.  "There has been a lot of information that has come out from these interrogation procedures that the agency has, in fact, used against the real hard-core terrorists," Brennan said in an interview with CBS News.

"It has saved lives,” he said.

The CIA reportedly has used waterboarding, which simulates drowning, on a total of three detainees, including 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), in 2002 and 2003.

Former Attorney General Michael Mukasey said KSM “broke like a dam under the pressure of harsh interrogation techniques that included waterboarding.”

“He loosed a torrent of information—including eventually the nickname of a trusted courier of bin Laden,” Mukasey wrote in May 2011.

Jose Rodriguez, a former CIA official who ran the counterterrorism center, also said that enhanced interrogation techniques (waterboarding) produced the “essential lead on the courier,” ultimately leading to the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan on May 1, 2011.

Sen. Levin, along with Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein, dispute this. They issued a 6,000-page report on enhanced interrogation used during the Bush administration in December.

“The roots of the UBL operation stretch back nearly a decade and involve hundreds, perhaps thousands, of intelligence professionals who worked non-stop to connect and analyze many fragments of information, eventually leading the United States to Usama Bin Laden’s location in Abbottabad, Pakistan,” said Levin and Feinstein in a statement last April.

“The suggestion that the operation was carried out based on information gained through the harsh treatment of CIA detainees is not only inaccurate, it trivializes the work of individuals across multiple U.S. agencies that led to UBL and the eventual operation,” they said.

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