Langley: US spymaster John Brennan staunchly defended CIA officers on Thursday as "patriots" but admitted some interrogators had used "abhorrent" tactics in the past decade.
In an extraordinary news conference, broadcast live from the agency`s Langley headquarters in a first in CIA history, Brennan sought to play down a damning Senate report on CIA torture of al Qaeda suspects that sparked a global furor.
Brennan insisted the vast majority of CIA officers performed admirably but he confirmed some had strayed "outside of bounds" of approved rules and abused prisoners.
Brennan said the torture came amid fear of another wave of violence from al Qaeda after the September 11, 2001 attacks, as the Central Intelligence Agency scrambled to take on the role of jailers -- a task it had virtually no experience with.
"We were not prepared," he said, describing how then-president George W Bush had approved the so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques" now denounced as torture.
President Barack Obama halted the program upon taking office in 2009 and has since described the Bush-era use of torture by the CIA as counterproductive and an affront to American values.
"In a limited number of cases, agency officers used interrogation techniques that had not been authorised, were abhorrent and rightly should be repudiated by all," Brennan said.
Amid a political row about whether Bush was right to order tough tactics in the wake of the attacks, Brennan said it was "unknowable" whether harsh interrogations had won useful intelligence.
When asked about his public condemnation of the methods five years ago, Brennan said he stood by his remarks and that torture often produced unreliable intelligence.
"I tend to believe that the use of coercive methods has a strong prospect for resulting in false information," he said. Brennan said answers from detainees were indeed useful in the hunt for Osama bin Laden, but it was impossible to say whether the "enhanced" interrogation had been necessary.
"There`s no way to know if information obtained from an individual who had been subjected at some point during his confinement could have been obtained through other means," he said.
Brennan refused to say whether the methods amounted to torture, but said the CIA was no longer involved in interrogating suspects and has adopted reforms to prevent such abuses from happening again.
As the program had been abandoned, it was time to "move forward," he said.
But Brennan blasted this week`s Senate intelligence committee report that accused the CIA of misleading the US government and public for years about the scale and effect of its torture methods.
Committee chair Senator Dianne Feinstein, who released the report after a long wrangle with the CIA over what should be made public, mostly praised the director`s comments.
"I am pleased that Director Brennan is attempting to acknowledge past mistakes by the agency in order to focus on current and future missions and make sure that a program like this is never considered again," she said in a statement.
But she disputed the idea that it was impossible to determine whether torture had led the CIA to its targets.
"The report shows that such information in fact was obtained through other means, both traditional CIA human intelligence and from other agencies," Feinstein said.
The inquiry into the spy agency`s abuse of al Qaeda suspects in a network of secret prisons around the world between 2002 and 2009 triggered global outrage and demands for justice.
Rights groups renewed calls for prosecutors to charge officials who approved the torture.
"If we don`t hold officials accountable for ordering that conduct, our government will adopt these methods again in the future," said Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Obama has condemned the torture, but has refused to say whether he thinks it can be effective. According to the report, Bush only learned details of the interrogations in 2006, four years after it started in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.
But, speaking to Fox News, former vice president Dick Cheney denied Bush was kept out of the loop.
He said the then president "was in fact an integral part of the program and he had to approve it."
Detainees were beaten, threatened, waterboarded -- some of them dozens of times -- and humiliated through the painful use of medically unnecessary "rectal feeding" and "rectal rehydration."
At one secret prison in Afghanistan dubbed the Salt Pit, a detainee died of hypothermia after being doused with water and left chained and half-naked on a cold, concrete floor, according to the Senate report.