President Barack Obama told reporters during a press briefing that America had “tortured some folks.” But, rather than stop with that statement, he proceeded to rationalize why law enforcement and national security teams, particularly the CIA had engaged in torture.
The comments came in response to the upcoming release of a redacted summary from the Senate intelligence committee’s 6,300-page report on the rendition, detention and interrogation (RDI) program the CIA operated after the September 11th attacks.
“I understand why it happened,” Obama stated. “I think it’s important when we look back to recall how afraid people were after the Twin Towers fell and the Pentagon had been hit and the plane in Pennsylvania had fallen and 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, and it’s important for us not to feel too sanctimonious in retrospect about the tough job that those folks had and a lot of those folks were working hard under enormous pressure and are real patriots.”
“But having said all that,” he added, “We did some things that were wrong. And that’s what that report reflects. And that’s the reason why after I took office one of the first things I did was to ban some of the extraordinary interrogation techniques that were the subject of this report. 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. And why we engaged in some of these enhanced interrogation techniques, techniques that I believe and any fair-minded person would believe were torture—We crossed a line.”
“That needs to be understood and accepted. And we have to as a country take responsibility for that so hopefully we don’t do it again in the future.”
The positive aspect of this statement to the press is that Obama called the techniques used torture, which is the appropriate word to use but the word many prominent United States media outlets have refused to use when reporting on this story. It is also true that the country must take responsibility and not torture people again. Yet, the rest of his statement was gratuitous and unnecessary, especially given the fact that his administration decriminalized CIA torture by choosing to “look forward, not backwards” in 2009.
Obama’s remarks are not all that different from the sentiment former Vice President Dick Cheney has expressed when defending torture.
“In my mind, the foremost obligation we had from a moral or an ethical standpoint was to the oath of office we took when we were sworn in, on January 20 of 2001, to protect and defend against all enemies foreign and domestic. And that’s what we’ve done,” Cheney told The Washington Times.
“I think it would have been unethical or immoral for us not to do everything we could in order to protect the nation against further attacks like what happened on 9/11.”
Yet, it is not like the country was caught up in the heat of the moment and collectively the national security apparatus found itself inexplicably torturing people captured, kidnapped or arrested in the “war on terrorism.” Like Cheney said, “We have to work toward the dark side, if you will. We’ve got to spend time in the shadows in the intelligence world. A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion, using sources and methods that are available to our intelligence agencies.”
The CIA and others involved consciously knew they were engaged in activity that constituted torture under US and international law. They went to work crafting the legal justification and developing “enhanced interrogation techniques” so they could get away with torturing prisoners for intelligence.
Justice Department lawyers like John Yoo drafted memos to make certain the definition of torture did not cover what CIA interrogators were doing to prisoners. As The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer has described, one memo defined torture so “that the only thing that really [wound] up being torture [was] inflicting pain on someone of an order that would be equivalent to organ failure. And it [had] to be the intentional infliction of pain because you could always argue, ‘Oh, I didn’t really mean for it to be so painful.’”
The findings of the report, which Obama did not mention, include: “repeatedly providing inaccurate information to the Department of Justice, impeding a proper legal analysis of the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program;” making “inaccurate” claims about the number of prisoners held and subjected to “enhanced interrogation techniques;” “inaccurately” characterizing the effectiveness of techniques and concealing how brutal the techniques and conditions of confinement were from policymakers.
This policy was not employed because there was some distinct knowledge of imminent attacks in the works, which needed to be uncovered or else US citizens would die. The CIA inspector general found in 2004 there was “no conclusive proof” that “waterboarding or other harsh interrogation techniques helped” thwart “specific imminent attacks.”
From the Washington Post:
Classified files reviewed by committee investigators reveal internal divisions over the interrogation program, officials said, including one case in which CIA employees left the agency’s secret prison in Thailand after becoming disturbed by the brutal measures being employed there. The report also cites cases in which officials at CIA headquarters demanded the continued use of harsh interrogation techniques even after analysts were convinced that prisoners had no more information to give.
The report describes previously undisclosed cases of abuse, including the alleged repeated dunking of a terrorism suspect in tanks of ice water at a detention site in Afghanistan — a method that bore similarities to waterboarding but never appeared on any Justice Department-approved list of techniques.
Finally, there is nothing “sanctimonious” about reflecting on the decisions made and policies adopted by the national security apparatus, which enabled and encouraged a culture where war crimes and crimes against humanity were routinely committed.
What is sanctimonious is the culture of impunity that is permitted by President Obama, the White House, the Justice Department and members of Congress, who all seem to agree former CIA officials and interrogators involved in torture should be protected from prosecution because they were operating in a “tough time” for America. They seem to believe the agency will return to morality all by itself without having to face justice for its actions.
The reality is that the refusal to prosecute and fully hold officials accountable for torture will have lasting effects on government, especially the CIA. It will continue to operate as if it is above the law by hacking into Senate computers to spy on staffers or by plotting media campaigns to discredit the release of reports that even President Obama thinks need to be read with great interest.
Obama and his administration have an obligation under the Convention Against Torture (which the US is a signatory) to fully investigate and prosecute those who commit torture. (This was highlighted in the European Court of Human Rights’ ruling that Poland had been complicit in the CIA’s torture of Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri.)
By shirking from prosecutions and by rationalizing the conduct of law enforcement and national security teams, Obama is engaging in conduct that is truly offensive to the victims of torture. However, as one can see from reading his comments, there was very little about the many innocent people the US had hurt significantly in the past thirteen years.
If there was more concern about the value of their lives—including innocents who remain in prisons like Guantanamo Bay and Bagram, perhaps, there would be loud calls for officials to be held accountable and brought to justice for crimes they committed.