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.