WASHINGTON — In startlingly blunt phrasing, President Barack Obama on Friday acknowledged the CIA’s use of brutal interrogation tactics in the years after the Sept. 11 attack, even as he defended the agency’s top spy, who is a veteran of the era.
“We tortured some folks,” Obama said to reporters during a news conference Friday. “We did some things that were contrary to our values.”
Obama has used the word “torture” before to describe the harsh interrogation tactics used at CIA-run secret prisons during the George W. Bush administration. But his words at a White House news conference were notably more direct than previous statements.
The comments reflect the line the president is preparing to walk as he gets ready for the release of a Senate committee report on the Bush-era rendition, detention and interrogation program.
The report, which is expected to be released as early as next week after five years in the making, details the CIA’s treatment of terrorism suspects and, according to officials who have seen the text, concludes that the sometimes-grisly tactics did not yield information that significantly helped the U.S. in its fight against al-Qaida.
The White House for months has been refereeing a fight over the report between CIA Director John Brennan and Senate Intelligence Committee chair Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. Feinstein and her Democratic colleagues on the committee have clashed with Brennan over access to documents, the procedures used by Senate investigators and, ultimately, the conclusions of the panel.
The CIA on Thursday said that Brennan had apologized to the senators for CIA employees improperly searching the Senate committee’s computer files.
On Friday, Obama took a nuanced approach, trying not to come down too hard on a spy agency he relies on for intelligence and has expanded under his own tenure.
He sought to put the interrogation program in context, recalling Americans’ fear after the Sept. 11 attacks and the “enormous pressure” on law enforcement to prevent more attacks.
“You know, it is important for us not to feel too sanctimonious in retrospect about the tough job that those folks had,” Obama said. “And a lot of those folks were working hard under enormous pressure and are real patriots.”
Obama said he has “full confidence in John Brennan.”
Still, “we tortured some folks” was Obama’s most direct description of the U.S. actions and drew immediate protests from some former CIA officials and their supporters.
In 2011, Obama drew a clear distinction between his position and that of some GOP presidential hopefuls who had supported the Bush-era program. “Waterboarding is torture. It’s contrary to America’s traditions. It’s contrary to our ideals,” he said then.
Last year, the president said that the U.S. had “compromised our basic values by using torture to interrogate our enemies, and detaining individuals in a way that ran counter to the rule of law.”