In the spring of his first year in office, President Obama talked to senior Cabinet and White House officials about options for dealing with the past practices of the CIA’s anti-terrorism detention and interrogation program.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) had called for a truth and reconciliation commission, like the one that exposed the police abuses of apartheid South Africa.
But some White House officials suggested a more novel option: a Pentagon-style after-action report, similar to the 9/11 Commission, which could clear the air without public hearings and without setting up prosecutions. Aides even floated the idea of making former Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor the commission’s head.
Obama complimented the suggestions — and then rejected them all.
Nearly six years later, the president finds himself embroiled in the same issues he was weighing then. The Senate Intelligence Committee did on Tuesday what he chose not to do then, delivering a stinging indictment of harsh interrogations, the people who oversaw them, and the lies told to Congress to conceal them.
The Senate report revived instantly the central elements of the debate over the U.S. response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, imperiling Obama’s hoped-for legacy as the president who moved the country beyond 9/11 and what he has called its excesses. The report drew fresh calls for CIA prosecutions — dismissed by Obama years ago as counterproductive — and accusations that the president has encouraged terrorism by supporting the report’s publication.
Obama did not speak publicly Tuesday about the findings, a tacit acknowledgment of how fraught his place in the debate remains. But in a written statement issued moments after the report was made public, Obama said, “One of the strengths that makes America exceptional is our willingness to openly confront our past, face our imperfections, make changes and do better.”
Obama has tried to walk a fine line on the interrogation techniques that he eventually came to call torture, though he refrained from directly doing so Tuesday.
In his first week in office, Obama had ordered an end to torture. And back in May 2009, before rejecting the idea of setting up a commission, Obama condemned harsh techniques in a soaring speech at the National Archives. In that speech, he never directly branded the “so-called enhanced interrogation techniques” as torture but he condemned torture in general and remarked that “we went off course.”
At the same time, Obama wanted to avoid distracting and divisive criminal prosecutions or hearings. He believed any inquiry of his would look like an attack on his predecessor, President George W. Bush, and dispel any hope of bringing a bipartisan spirit to government. And he feared that the intelligence services, whose career rank-and-file members had followed guidelines handed down from above, would feel they had been abandoned by a new administration.
That’s what made the mere use of the word “torture” tricky. Torture is a felony and a violation of international law. Aware of that, Eric H. Holder Jr., before his confirmation hearings for attorney general, had checked with the White House before using the word.
David Cole, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center, said Obama “has been relatively consistent in basically saying what the CIA did was unacceptable.” But Cole added Obama has “said that we should look forwards not backwards and he is opposed to any formal accountability for what was done, including a 9/11-type commission. And without his support, it wasn’t going anywhere.”
With the publication Tuesday of the declassified summary of the Intelligence Committee’s report, Obama is again trying to find a middle road. The report’s central conclusion is that the interrogation measures didn’t work and that the best and most reliable intelligence was obtained through other, legal means. And it presents a dismal litany of brutality in that program.
But CIA Director John Brennan on Monday defended the agency’s actions, saying that the controversial program produced evidence that helped avert strikes against the United States and that agency officials did not intentionally mislead Congress.
“Our review indicates that interrogations of detainees on whom [enhanced interrogation techniques] were used did produce intelligence that helped thwart attack plans, capture terrorists, and save lives,” Brennan said in a statement. “The intelligence gained from the program was critical to our understanding of al-Qa’ida and continues to inform our counterterrorism efforts to this day.”
The debate about the usefulness of information gleaned from those interrogations remains as divisive as ever. A 2013 Associated Press-NORC poll found that 50 percent of Americans believed that torturing terrorist suspects can “often” or “sometimes” be justified to gain information about terrorist activities; 47 percent said it can rarely or never be justified.
White House officials on Tuesday would not take sides on whether torture ever yields useful information. “We are not going to engage in this debate,” said a senior White House official in a background briefing for reporters.
Obama, in his statement, said the report “reinforces my long-held view that these harsh methods were not only inconsistent with our values as nation, they did not serve our broader counterterrorism efforts or our national security interests.”
But Obama also heaped praise on the nation’s intelligence services. “Since the horrific attacks of 9/11, these public servants have worked tirelessly to devastate core al-Qaeda, deliver justice to Osama bin Laden, disrupt terrorist operations and thwart terrorist attacks,” Obama said in his statement. “Solemn rows of stars on the Memorial Wall at the CIA honor those who have given their lives to protect ours. Our intelligence professionals are patriots, and we are safer because of their heroic service and sacrifices.”
The administration has withheld more than 2,000 photographs of harsh treatment of detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan. A federal judge has ordered the administration to detail reasons by Friday.
The president had sympathetic words for the Bush administration, saying that “with legitimate fears of further attacks and with the responsibility to prevent more catastrophic loss of life, the previous administration faced agonizing choices about how to pursue al Qaeda and prevent additional terrorist attacks against our country.”
That was not, however, enough to pacify congressional Republicans, many of whom lashed out against the committee report and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who is in her final days as the committee chairman before Republicans take control of the Senate.
“Our intelligence professionals have done their very best to keep America safe in the wake of the 9/11 attacks,” House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said in a written statement. “They deserve our thanks, not an ideologically-motivated report designed to undermine their work.”
Six Republicans from the Intelligence Committee, including ranking Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss (Ga.), issued a minority report that says the Democrats cost the government $40 million and diverted “countless CIA analytic and support resources” while failing to offer ways to improve intelligence interrogations.
But it wasn’t only Republicans who expressed frustration with Obama.
Sen. John D. Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who was chairman of the Intelligence Committee when it began to dig into CIA tactics, hailed Obama for putting a stop to the program, but he complained that the White House was still withholding 9,000 documents from the committee. He said the White House also attempted to omit any indication of some redacted portions of the report.
“It was with deep disappointment that, over the course of a number of private meetings and conversations, I came to feel that the White House’s strong deference to the CIA throughout this process has, at times, worked at cross-purposes with the White House’s stated interest in transparency, and has muddied what should be a clear and unequivocal legacy on this issue,” he said.
Although some Republicans feared that an overseas backlash would endanger Americans abroad, Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Susan Collins (Maine) praised Feinstein’s decision to release the information.
McCain, who was taken prisoner during the Vietnam War, said in a Senate floor speech, “I know from personal experience that the abuse of prisoners will produce more bad than good intelligence.” In a statement, Collins said that the findings “should be made public to allow the American people to reach their own conclusions.”
Obama had his own hopes for the report. “Rather than another reason to refight old arguments,” he said, “I hope that today’s report can help us leave these techniques where they belong — in the past.”
Yet six years into his presidency, the torture controversy is very much in the present.
Sean Sullivan contributed to this report.