During his recent speech and accompanying question and answer session at the Council on Foreign Relations, CIA Director John Brennan made a seemingly rare public admission regarding the way the agency handles detentions and interrogations of terrorism suspects.  Brennan stated the CIA had overcome the recent termination of its enhanced interrogation program by returning to the agency’s historic reliance on foreign liaison partners for the capture and interrogation of members of terrorist organizations.

In an exchange with Fox News’ Megan Kelly, in the waning minutes of his hour-plus-long visit to the CFR, Kelly asked Brennan if the United States was “still capturing terrorists, and if so, where do we keep them?”  The Fox News host also asked Brennan, “how are we interrogating them?”

One would have expected Brennan to demur on this question, which is an admittedly insightful one, and well worth asking, if not one to which you would expect to hear an answer in a public forum.  Nevertheless, Brennan did answer Ms. Kelly’s question, in two parts.

First, Brennan addressed those terrorism suspects who might be captured here in America, by the FBI or other law enforcement agencies.  Brennan pointed out that those suspects would be handled by American law enforcement.  Simple enough, and nothing new there.

With regard to those terrorist suspects, however, within the agency’s grasp overseas, Brennan’s answer was more telling.  The CIA Director stated that the agency needed to be able to “work with our partners again” to identify individuals, and “have them captured.”  Brennan went on to state that the CIA has helped in places across the world to “bring people into custody” and “engage in” the debriefing of those individuals, sometimes jointly with liaison partners.

In this frank answer, Brennan is basically, though not surprisingly, admitting that the Obama administration’s ending of the CIA interrogation program has been compensated for by a return to the former reliance on liaison partners to make arrests and to take the lead in the interrogation of terror suspects.

Again, this is an insightful question and answer that one finds buried almost an hour into Brennan’s remarks and Q&A.  While “The Intercept” did pick up on the remark, in an article written by Cora Currier, it was largely overlooked by the mainstream media in favor of reports on the CIA’s planned re-organization by Brennan and his leadership team.

Two Counterterrorism Models, One Way Forward

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So, what does this mean?  Before 9/11, and the ramp-up of the CIA’s rendition and interrogation program, the agency often relied on its foreign liaison partners to arrest and interrogate terror suspects.  The practice has been used for decades and can often be an effective way to handle these persons.  It also can, and in fact often has, lead to abuses, as obviously, not all countries adhere to the same standards of prisoner treatment.

Essentially, the Obama administration handled one dilemma (what do we do with our enhanced interrogation program?) by returning to an older one (how do we reconcile our liaison partners’ often inhumane treatment of suspects we ask them to detain and question on our behalf?).

The bottom line is, these persons are inevitably out there, and available for an immediate capture.  Unless we desire to kill them all through assassination programs, which unfortunately rarely results in the acquisition of intelligence of any value, we have to have a plan in place for how to handle members of terror groups that we have the fortune of capturing.

It appears, according to Brennan’s remarks, as though we have returned to the pre-9/11 regime of outsourcing this work to liaison.

(Photo courtesy of PBS News Hour)