Washington (AFP) - President Barack Obama acknowledged Friday that US intelligence operatives had "tortured some folks" in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks, but urged they not be judged too harshly.
The US administration is expected to release a declassified Senate report in the coming days that will detail abuses by intelligence agents targeting the Islamist extremist group Al-Qaeda.
"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 told reporters.
"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.
"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."
Apparently preparing the ground for the report, which lawmakers say they expect to be made public within days, Obama said intelligence personnel had been under extreme pressure in 2001 and after.
His remarks on Friday were not the first time Obama has said that the actions of some US agents under his predecessor George W. Bush during the so-called "war on terror" amounted to torture.
Upon taking office in 2009, he banned "enhanced interrogation techniques" such as water-boarding, a form of simulated drowning that US intelligence has admitted using.
And, in May last year, Obama said in a major address to the National Defense University: "I believe we compromised our basic values by using torture to interrogate our enemies."
- 'Real patriots' -
But the president has resisted calls to launch criminal investigations into individual US officials, and on Friday again said it was important for the United States to take responsibility "as a country."
"People did not know whether more attacks were imminent and there was enormous pressure on our law enforcement and our national security teams to try to deal with this," he said.
"It's important for us not to feel too sanctimonious in retrospect about the tough job those folks had. And a lot of those folks were working hard and under enormous pressure, and are real patriots.
"But having said all that, we did some things that were wrong, and that's what that report reflects," he added.
"And my hope is that this report reminds us once again that ... 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."
The Central Intelligence Agency has long faced allegations that its "enhanced interrogation techniques," used between 2002 and 2006 as it hunted Al-Qaeda operatives, amounted to illegal rights abuses.
The Senate probe generated a separate scandal of its own this week, when CIA chief John Brennan admitted that his officers had improperly accessed the computers of congressional investigators.
Brennan has faced calls for his resignation, but Obama said that he retained "full confidence" in him.
Media reports on Friday differed as to whether the Senate report about to be released would explicitly call the CIA interrogators' actions "torture" -- a word with legal implications.
But Senator Dianne Feinstein, the chairwoman of the Senate intelligence committee leading the inquiry, said the report shows abuse was “far more systematic and widespread than we thought.”
The harsh techniques adopted during the "war on terror" have been attacked by human rights groups as absolute abuses and by security experts who argue that they provide inaccurate intelligence.
But some neo-conservative former policy-makers from the Bush era continue to defend them, insisting they were vital in providing clues in the global manhunt for militant leaders like Osama bin Laden.