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December 22, 2014
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US president: ‘We tortured some folks’

US President Barack Obama pauses as he speaks in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, yesterday.
Obama admits the US crossed the line with imminent release of Senate report on CIA tactics

WASHINGTON — The United States tortured al-Qaeda detainees captured after the September 11, 2001 attacks, US President Obama said yesterday, in some of his most expansive comments to date about a controversial set of CIA practices that he banned after taking office.

“We tortured some folks,” Obama said at a televised news conference at the White House. “We did some things that were contrary to our values.”

Addressing the impending release of a Senate report that criticizes CIA treatment of detainees, Obama said he believed the mistreatment stemmed from the pressure national security officials felt to forestall another attack. He said US citizens should not be too “sanctimonious,” about passing judgment through the lens of a seemingly safer present day.

That view, which he expressed as a candidate for national office in 2008 and early in his presidency, explains why Obama did not push to pursue criminal charges against the Bush era officials who carried out the CIA programme. To this day, many of those officials insist that what they did was not torture, which is a felony under US law.

The president’s comments are a blow to those former officials, as well as an estimated 200 people currently working at the CIA who played some role in the interrogation programme.

In 2009, Obama said he preferred to “look forward, not backwards,” on the issue, and he decided that no CIA officer who was following legal guidance — however flawed that guidance turned out to be — should be prosecuted. A long-running criminal investigation into whether the CIA exceeded the guidance — which is an allegation of the Senate report — was closed in 2012 without charges.

Blunt phrasing

Still, Obama’s remarks yesterday were more emphatic than his previous comments on the subject, including a May 2009 speech in which he trumpeted his ban of “so-called enhanced interrogation techniques,” and “brutal methods,” but did not flatly say the US had engaged in torture.

At an April 2009 new conference, he said, “I believe that waterboarding was torture and, whatever legal rationales were used, it was a mistake.”

In addition to water-boarding, the CIA used stress positions, sleep deprivation, nudity, humiliation, cold and other tactics that, taken together, were extremely brutal, the Senate report is expected to say. Obama yesterday did not mention a specific method, but he said the CIA used techniques that “any fair-minded person would believe were torture.”

“We crossed a line,” he said. “That needs to be understood and accepted... We did some things that were wrong, and that’s what that report reflects.”

Unnecessary techniques

Obama yesterday did not address two other central arguments of the soon-to-be-released Senate report — that the brutal interrogations didn’t produce life-saving intelligence, and that the CIA lied to other elements of the US government about exactly what it was doing.

The president also said he had full confidence in CIA Director John Brennan in the wake of an internal CIA report documenting that the agency spied on a US Senate committee investigating its interrogation techniques. There have been calls for his resignation by Congressional lawmakers.

Obama said the internal report made clear that “some very poor judgment was shown,” but he seemed to say it wasn’t Brennan’s fault, and he praised his director for ordering the inquiry in the first place.

Herald with Reuters, AP

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