President Barack Obama somberly warned on Friday that a forthcoming Senate Intelligence Committee report will show that the United States “tortured some folks” before he took office. But he dismissed “sanctimonious” calls to punish any individuals responsible and rejected calls for CIA Director John Brennan’s resignation.
“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 the line,” Obama declared in the White House briefing room.
“And 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,” the president said.
Obama said the White House and CIA process of declassifying portions of the Senate Intelligence Committee report on Rendition, Detention, Interrogation was complete and that the document would now be made public “at the pleasure” of the committee.
The report is expected to lay out in grim, unprecedented detail how the United States questioned suspected terrorists using techniques such as waterboarding that meet international definitions of torture.
Obama ordered an end to such practices upon taking office — but he angered liberals by setting aside calls to prosecute or otherwise punish those who ordered the use of such techniques or carried out those commands. Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. launched a criminal probe into the interrogations program in 2009, but the prosecutor assigned to the investigation declined to bring any charges.
“In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, we did some things that were wrong. We did a whole lot of things that were right, but we tortured some folks,” Obama explained on Friday.
“I understand why it happened,” he said. “People did not know whether more attacks were imminent, and there was enormous pressure on our law-enforcement and our national security teams” to prevent any follow-on strikes.
“It’s important for us not to feel too sanctimonious in retrospect about the tough job that those folks had,” Obama said.
“A lot of those folks were working hard under enormous pressure and are real patriots. But having said all that we did some things that were wrong,” he said. “And that’s what that report reflects.”
The Senate Intelligence Committee could within days make public the declassified executive summary of the 6,200-page report — as well as dissenting views from the panel’s Republicans and the CIA.
While Obama does not appear willing to reopen the question of prosecuting those responsible for the policy, or those who carried it out, the angry debate could have an impact on trials of suspected terrorists held at Guantanamo Bay or elsewhere, who could now argue that any confessions are inadmissible because they were obtained through torture.
The process of crafting the report led to an unprecedented feud between the CIA and Senate IntelligenceCommittee Chair Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who publicly accused the agency in March of improperly interfering with her panel’s investigation.
Brennan had loudly denied Feinstein’s charges that agency officials had broken into computers used by Senate staff at a CIA facility to sift through agency documents. On Thursday, a CIA inspector general report confirmed Feinstein’s charges, prompting some congressional Democrats to call for Brennan’s removal.
“I have full confidence in John Brennan,” Obama said during his hastily arranged Q&A session on Friday.
“He has acknowledged and directly apologized to Sen. Feinstein,” the president said, faulting the CIA staff involved for their “very poor judgment.”
“Keep in mind, though, that John Brennan was the person who called for the IG report,” Obama said. “And he has already stood up a task force to make sure that lessons are learned and mistakes are resolved.”