John Brennan made history on Thursday.
In response to a Senate report on U.S. interrogation of terrorism suspects, the CIA director held a press conference at the agency's headquarters in Langley, Virginia. He responded to questions from reporters. Live. On camera. Facing an outcry over revelations of torture, the secretive spy agency took its public-relations campaign remarkably public. It was a measure of how seriously the CIA is taking the allegations and fallout from them.
"I've never been to a CIA press conference at HQ in my career, and I can't remember the last one I've heard of," Shane Harris, a national correspondent for The Daily Beast who has been reporting on national-security issues for at least a decade, told me. He added that while CIA directors have taken questions at other public events, Thursday's event "really was unusual."
During the press conference, Brennan offered an unpopular defense of his agency's actions, characterized the Senate report as "flawed," and lambasted some of his agency's officers for using "abhorrent" methods to extract information from detainees.
As his remarks were being countered on Twitter by Senate Intelligence Committee chair Dianne Feinstein and others, Brennan didn't rule out using so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques" going forward, saying he would “defer to the policymakers in future times when there is going to be the need to be able to ensure that this country stays safe if we face a similar type of crisis.” Brennan also wouldn't say if these techniques yielded useful intelligence or not.
Just how unusual was the spectacle? Ryan Trapani, a CIA spokesman, explained:
It looks as if this was the first live televised press conference. [Michael] Hayden held one in 2007 but I don't think it was live. [John] Deutch held one in 1995 but again I don't think it was live.
"We haven't been able to hunt down the details on the prior ones," he added—in a line unusual to hear from the often omniscient CIA. "But if you can, it would establish it was the first time we've done it this way."
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