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Obama Keeps Distance From Torture Debate, At Least For Now

May 25, 2013
Originally published on May 25, 2013 2:12 pm

In his national security speech Thursday, President Obama discussed drone warfare and the Guantanamo detention camp. But a third controversial issue went largely unmentioned: the use of interrogation methods that are tantamount to torture.

Obama banned those interrogation techniques on his second day in office. But he has largely avoided the debate over whether torture in some cases has produced valuable information. He may soon find himself caught between Senate Democrats and the CIA, however.

A Senate committee report approved last December essentially concluded that the CIA's enhanced interrogation program was a disaster. The CIA is preparing a response, which is expected to challenge some of the report's assertions.

Did It Work?

It's been years since a suspected terrorist faced waterboarding. But the debate over past practices continues, thanks in part to the Senate Intelligence Committee. Investigators from that committee spent six years poring over millions of CIA documents relating to agency interrogations of suspected al-Qaida members.

The committees' findings resulted in a report that's 6,000 pages long — and scathing.

"This program was severely flawed. It was mismanaged. The enhanced interrogation techniques were brutal, and, perhaps most importantly, it did not work," Democratic Sen. Mark Udall said in February.

The program did not "work," the committee said, in the sense that the "brutal" interrogations — the torture — produced no information, no leads, of any use in tracking down terrorists.

The report itself is classified, so the evidence for that conclusion has not been made public — and Republicans on the committee don't buy it.

"We knew, for example, that members of the administration have said repeatedly that information was gleaned from individuals who were interrogated with the use of enhanced techniques. We know that's a fact," ranking member Saxby Chambliss of Georgia tells NPR.

Among those officials is John Brennan, Obama's counterterrorism adviser in the first term and now his CIA director.

The CIA's Rebuttal

In 2007, Brennan said that while he was personally troubled by the harsh interrogations, he did think the information thus obtained had saved lives.

During his confirmation hearing in February, Brennan acknowledged to Chambliss that that had been his view. But Brennan also said the documentary record uncovered by the Senate investigators gave him pause.

"I must tell you, senator, that reading this report from the committee raises serious questions about the information that I was given at the time, the impression I had at that time," he said. "Now I have to determine what the truth is, and at this point, senator, I do not know what the truth is."

Brennan, at that point, had read only the executive summary of the Senate report. The CIA, under his direction, is now working on an official response to the report, and former intelligence officials say the agency will directly challenge some committee conclusions, without necessarily arguing that brutal interrogation methods are acceptable.

'A Day Of Reckoning'

In his speech this week, Obama said the United States compromised its basic values, "by using torture to interrogate our enemies." But he did not say those interrogations proved useless — as Senate Democrats say — or actually produced some valuable leads, morality aside, as CIA officials have consistently argued.

Benjamin Wittes, a national security fellow at the Brookings Institution, says a formal CIA rebuttal to the Senate Intelligence Committee may force Obama to choose between Senate Democrats and his own CIA.

"I do think there will be a day of reckoning in which the administration has to decide, do we want to: a) intervene on behalf of the committee in some way, b) intervene and protect the agency, or just kind of sit it out and let them fight it out at a lower level," he says.

The counterterrorism effort over the last decade has involved tough decisions about whether and when ends justify means. This week, Obama tried to resolve that question with respect to drone warfare and detention policies. He condemned torture.

But the dispute between Senate Democrats and the CIA is about what works, not what's moral. And that's a more difficult question.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News, I'm Scott Simon. And this week, President Obama redefined his administration's national security strategy in a speech that took up drone warfare and the Guantanamo detention camp. A third controversial issue largely went unmentioned by the president - the use of interrogation methods that are tantamount to torture.

President Obama banned those interrogation techniques on his second day in office, but as NPR's Tom Gjelten reports, the president has largely avoided the debate over whether torture, in some cases, might have produced valuable information.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: It's been years since a suspected terrorist faced waterboarding, but the debate over past practices continues, thanks in part to the Senate Intelligence Committee. Investigators from that committee spent six years pouring over millions of CIA documents relating to agency interrogations of suspected al-Qaida members. Last December, the committee produced its report 6,000 pages long.

The conclusion, the CIA's enhanced interrogation program was a disaster. Here's Democratic Senator Mark Udall.

SENATOR MARK UDALL: This program was severely flawed, it was mismanaged. Enhanced interrogation techniques were brutal, and perhaps most importantly, it did not work.

GJELTEN: The program did not work, the committee said, in the sense that the brutal interrogations, the torture, produced no information, no leads of any use in tracking down terrorists. The report itself is classified so the evidence for that conclusion has not been made public and Republicans on the committee don't buy it.

Saxby Chambliss is the ranking member.

SENATOR SAXBY CHAMBLISS: We knew, for example, that members of the administration have said repeatedly that information was gleaned from individuals who were interrogated with the use of enhanced techniques. We know that's a fact.

GJELTEN: Among those officials, John Brennan, President Obama's counterterrorism advisor in the first term and now his CIA director. In 2007, Brennan said that while he was personally troubled by the harsh interrogations, he did think the information thus obtained had saved lives. During his confirmation hearing in February, Brennan acknowledged to Chambliss that that had been his view. But Brennan also said the documentary record uncovered by the Senate investigators gave him pause.

DIRECTOR JOHN BRENNAN: I must tell you, senator, that reading this report from the committee raises serious questions about the information that I was given at the time and the impression I had at that time. Now I have to determine what the truth is and at this point, senator, I do not know what the truth is.

GJELTEN: Brennan, at that point, had read only the executive summary of the Senate report. The CIA, under his direction, is now preparing an official response to the report and former intelligence officials say the agency will directly challenge some committee conclusions without necessarily arguing that brutal interrogation methods are acceptable.

In his speech last week, President Obama said the United States compromised its basic values, quote, "by using torture to interrogate our enemies." But he did not say those interrogations proved useless, as Senate Democrats say, or actually produced some valuable leads, morality aside, as CIA officials have consistently argued. Benjamin Wittes, a national security fellow at the Brookings Institution, says a formal CIA rebuttal to the Senate Intelligence Committee may force Obama to choose between Senate Democrats and his own CIA.

BENJAMIN WITTES: I do think there will be a day of reckoning in which the administration has to decide do we want to, A, intervene on behalf of the committee in some way; B, intervene and protect the agency; or just kind of sit it out and let them fight it out at a lower level.

GJELTEN: The counterterrorism effort over the last decade has involved tough decisions about whether and when ends justify means. This week, President Obama tried to resolve that question with respect to drone warfare and detention policies. He condemned torture, but the dispute between Senate Democrats and the CIA is about what works, not what's moral, and that's a more difficult question. Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.

SIMON: And tomorrow on WEEKEND EDITION, Rachel Martin will get reaction on the president's drone policy with his former intelligence advisor, Admiral Dennis Blair. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.