WASHINGTON – The United States tortured al-Qaida detainees captured after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, President Obama said Friday, in some of his most expansive comments to date about a controversial set of CIA practices that he banned after taking office.
“We tortured some folks,” Obama said at a televised news conference at the White House. “We did some things that were contrary to our values.”
Addressing the impending release of a Senate report that criticizes CIA treatment of detainees, Obama said he believes the mistreatment stemmed from the pressure national security officials felt to forestall another attack. He said Americans should not be too “sanctimonious” about passing judgment through the lens of a seemingly safer present day.
That view, which he expressed as a candidate for national office in 2008 and early in his presidency, explains why Obama did not push to pursue criminal charges against Bush era officials who carried out the CIA program. To this day, many of those officials insist that what they did was not torture, which is a felony under U.S. law.
The president’s comments are a blow to those former officials, as well as an estimated 200 people currently working at the CIA who played some role in the interrogation program.
In 2009, Obama said he preferred to “look forward, not backward” on the issue, and he decided that no CIA officer who was following legal guidance — however flawed that guidance turned out to be — should be prosecuted. A long-running criminal investigation into whether the CIA exceeded the guidance — which is an allegation of the Senate report — was closed in 2012 without charges.
Still, Obama’s remarks Friday were more emphatic than his previous comments on the subject, including a May 2009 speech in which he trumpeted his ban of “so-called enhanced interrogation techniques,” and “brutal methods,” but did not flatly say the U.S. had engaged in torture.
At an April 2009 new conference, he said, “I believe that waterboarding was torture and, whatever legal rationales were used, it was a mistake.”
In addition to water boarding, the CIA used stress positions, sleep deprivation, nudity, humiliation, cold and other tactics that, taken together, were extremely brutal, the Senate report is expected to say. Obama on Friday did not mention a specific method, but he said the CIA used techniques that “any fair-minded person would believe were torture.”
“We crossed a line,” he said. “That needs to be understood and accepted. . . . We did some things that were wrong, and that’s what that report reflects.”
Obama on Friday did not address two other central arguments of the soon-to-be-released Senate report — that the brutal interrogations didn’t produce life-saving intelligence, and that the CIA lied to other elements of the U.S. government about exactly what it was doing.
The president also expressed confidence in his CIA director, John Brennan, in the wake of an internal CIA report documenting that the spy agency improperly accessed Senate computers. There have been calls for his resignation by congressional lawmakers.
Obama said the internal report made clear that “some very poor judgment was shown,” but he seemed to say it wasn’t Brennan’s fault, and he praised his director for ordering the inquiry in the first place.