In startlingly blunt phrasing, President Obama on Friday acknowledged the CIA’s use of brutal interrogation tactics in the years after the Sept. 11 attack, even as he defended the agency’s top spy, who is a veteran of the era.
“We tortured some folks,” Obama said to reporters during a news conference Friday. “We did some things that were contrary to our values.” The comments reflect the line the president is preparing to walk as he gets ready for the release of a Senate committee report on the Bush-era rendition, detention and interrogation program. The report, which is expected to be released as early as next week after five years in the making, details the CIA’s treatment of terrorism suspects and, according to officials who have seen the text, concludes that the sometimes-grisly tactics did not yield information that significantly helped the U.S. in its fight against Al Qaeda.
The White House for months has been refereeing a fight over the report between CIA Director John Brennan and Senate Intelligence Committee chair Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA). Feinstein and her Democratic colleagues on the committee have clashed with Brennan over access to documents, the procedures used by Senate investigators and, ultimately, the conclusions of the panel.
The CIA on Thursday said that Brennan had apologized to the senators for CIA employees improperly searching the Senate committee’s computer files. On Friday, Obama took a nuanced approach, trying not to come down too hard on a spy agency he relies on for intelligence and has expanded under his own tenure.
He sought to put the interrogation program in context, recalling Americans’ fear after the Sept. 11 attacks and the “enormous pressure” on law enforcement to prevent more attacks. “You know, it is important for us not to feel too sanctimonious in retrospect about the tough job that those folks had,” Obama said. “And a lot of those folks were working hard under enormous pressure and are real patriots.”
Obama said he has “full confidence in John Brennan.”
Still, “we tortured some folks” was Obama’s most direct description of the U.S. actions and drew immediate protests from some former CIA officials and their supporters.
In 2011, Obama drew a clear distinction between his position and that of some GOP presidential hopefuls who had supported the Bush-era program. “Waterboarding is torture. It’s contrary to America’s traditions. It’s contrary to our ideals,” he said then. Last year, the president said that the U.S. had “compromised our basic values by using torture to interrogate our enemies, and detaining individuals in a way that ran counter to the rule of law.”
President Barack Obama voiced full support for CIA Director John Brennan, who has apologized to Senate intelligence committee leaders after an investigation found his agency inappropriately searched congressional computers.
“I have full confidence in John Brennan,” Obama said at a news conference at the White House yesterday where he also discussed the economy, the conflict in the Middle East and border security.
The president also sought to put in context the anti-terrorist activities of the government underlying the current conflict between the CIA and Senate, which began with an intelligence committee probe of U.S. interrogation tactics following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
“Even before I came into office, I was very clear that in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, we did some things that were wrong,” Obama said. “We did a whole lot of things that were right, but we tortured some folks. We did some things that were contrary to our values.”
“There was enormous pressure on our law enforcement and our national security teams to try to deal with this,” he said. “And you know, it’s important for us not to feel too sanctimonious in retrospect.”
After the Senate intelligence committee started investigating the tactics, the Central Intelligence Agency’s inspector general concluded that agency personnel searched the computers “in a manner inconsistent” with an agreement with the committee, Dean Boyd, a CIA spokesman said July 31.
Brennan “is committed to correcting any shortcomings related to this matter and, to that end, he is commissioning an Accountability Board at CIA” that “could include potential disciplinary measures and/or steps to address systemic issues,” Boyd said.
The inspector general’s report defused a rare public feud between the CIA and one of its oversight committees in Congress.
The dispute stemmed from a committee investigation of “enhanced interrogation” techniques used by the CIA in the years after the Sept. 11 attacks, such as waterboarding, sleep deprivation and confinement in small spaces.
“These are positive first steps,” Senator Dianne Feinstein, the committee’s chairman, said in a statement responding to Brennan’s apology. “This IG report corrects the record and it is my understanding that a declassified report will be made available to the public shortly.”
In March, Feinstein, a California Democrat who usually champions the intelligence agencies, took to the Senate floor to protest that the CIA may have broken the law and violated the Constitution’s provisions on separation of powers by secretly monitoring computers being used by committee staff and by withholding some documents in violation of an agreement.
The CIA, in turn, said that some Senate staff members had surreptitiously removed classified files from a CIA facility and asked the Justice Department to investigate.
The Justice Department said last month there was insufficient evidence to continue criminal investigations into the CIA’s or the Senate committee staff’s actions.
Brennan’s apology is an effort by the Obama administration to ease tensions between the CIA and the Senate panel as the lawmakers prepare to release a report sharply critical of the intelligence agency’s 2001-2006 detention and interrogation program, said two U.S. officials.
The report found that the use of waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques produced little timely, accurate and valuable intelligence in the war on terrorism, according to the officials, who have read it and agreed to speak on condition of anonymity because it hasn’t been declassified. Former officials of intelligence agencies and President George W. Bush’s administration dispute that conclusion.
The Senate committee also found that CIA officials either withheld information from, or misled, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell and other administration officials and the congressional oversight committees, the two officials said.
Release of the report encountered a possible delay yesterday due to redactions in its executive summary that the White House returned to the committee, according to panel officials.
“We need additional time to understand the basis for these redactions and determine their justification,” Feinstein said in a statement. “Therefore the report will be held until further notice and released when that process is completed.”
More than 85 percent of the report has been declassified, said James Clapper, director of national intelligence, in a statement yesterday. Redactions protect “sensitive classified information,” he said.
Senator Kelly Ayotte, a New Hampshire Republican, said Brennan’s job may be at risk.
“It could be an issue of constitutional proportions,” said Ayotte, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, in an interview for Bloomberg Television’s “Political Capital with Al Hunt,” airing this weekend.
Senator Mark Udall, a Colorado Democrat on the intelligence committee, said in a statement that Brennan has failed to deliver on promises to change the CIA’s culture and respect “vigorous and independent congressional oversight.”
“From the unprecedented hacking of congressional staff computers and continued leaks undermining the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation of the CIA’s detention and interrogation program to his abject failure to acknowledge any wrongdoing by the agency, I have lost confidence in John Brennan,” Udall said.
In defending the agency and its director, Obama yesterday also said that he had moved early in his administration to correct any CIA tactics “that were wrong.”
“One of the first things I did was to ban some of the extraordinary interrogation techniques that are the subject of that report,” he said. “And my hope is that this report reminds us once again that, you know, the character of our country has to be measured in part not by what we do when things are easy, but what we do when things are hard.”
“And when we engaged in some of these enhanced interrogation techniques, techniques that I believe and I think any fair-minded person would believe were torture, we crossed a line,” he said. “That needs to be understood and accepted. And we have to, as a country, take responsibility for that, so that hopefully we don’t do it again in the future.”