Why Obama Saying ‘Torture’ Matters

On Friday, the president went further than Senate Intelligence in harshly characterizing CIA abuses, making a powerful statement in the process.

National Journal
James Oliphant
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James Oliphant
Aug. 1, 2014, 12:47 p.m.

Fri­day wasn’t the first time Pres­id­ent Obama used the word “tor­ture” to de­scribe the “en­hanced in­ter­rog­a­tion tech­niques” used by the Cent­ral In­tel­li­gence Agency against ter­ror­ism sus­pects, but this time might be the most mean­ing­ful.

Obama’s re­marks came at the end of an im­promptu ses­sion with re­port­ers in the White House brief­ing room. Asked about a clas­si­fied Sen­ate re­port that delved in­to CIA ac­tions dur­ing the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion, the pres­id­ent re­spon­ded by say­ing the re­port con­cluded that in the af­ter­math of the 9/11 at­tacks, “we did some things that were wrong. 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.”

Obama made sim­il­ar re­marks last year in a speech at the Na­tion­al De­fense Uni­versity — and, as far back as 2009, he re­ferred to “wa­ter­board­ing” as tor­ture. But it car­ries great­er weight now, with the ex­pect­a­tion that por­tions of the Sen­ate re­port will be de­clas­si­fied in the com­ing days at the ur­ging of the White House.

That re­port, which chron­icles a series of CIA ab­uses, does not use the word “tor­ture” to char­ac­ter­ize ex­cess­ive in­ter­rog­a­tion prac­tices, ac­cord­ing to The Daily Beast. Sen. Di­anne Fein­stein, the chair­wo­man of the Sen­ate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee, which con­duc­ted the probe has said its find­ings will re­veal ab­use that is “chilling” and “sys­tem­at­ic and wide­spread.” The re­port is also ex­pec­ted to con­clude that the en­hanced tech­niques were not ef­fect­ive in yield­ing use­ful in­tel­li­gence.

“Tor­ture” and the con­nota­tions it car­ries has been a loaded word polit­ic­ally since George W. Bush’s first term. And Obama’s de­cision to use it im­me­di­ately sparked out­rage from con­ser­vat­ives on Twit­ter. (Obama was also cri­ti­cized for us­ing the col­lo­qui­al “folks” to de­scribe those in­ter­rog­ated.)

But it ap­pears to have been a choice by the pres­id­ent to cast the CIA’s prac­tices in the most bru­tal terms in or­der to make his con­dem­na­tion of them as power­ful as pos­sible, send­ing a sig­nal both at home and abroad that such prac­tices are no longer sanc­tioned. That way, when the re­port does be­come pub­lic, Obama’s words Fri­day will still be echo­ing. At the same time, it likely will do little to mol­li­fy crit­ics who say his ad­min­is­tra­tion has failed to hold CIA agents who con­duc­ted the in­ter­rog­a­tions leg­ally ac­count­able.

Obama also used the oc­ca­sion to sup­port CIA Dir­ect­or John Bren­nan, who apo­lo­gized this week to law­makers after an in­tern­al probe found that CIA agents had broken in­to com­puters used by the Sen­ate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee. At least one mem­ber of that com­mit­tee, Mark Ud­all of Col­or­ado, has called for Bren­nan to resign. But the pres­id­ent seemed to put that mat­ter to rest, for now. “I have full con­fid­ence in John Bren­nan,” Obama said.

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