On the heels of the release of a not entirely surprising but unprecedented report on the Central Intelligence Agency’s torture program, President Barack Obama disavowed the agency’s actions and said the torture has harmed the nation’s moral standing in the world. But the White House’s haste to plant the current president on moral high ground and distance him from George W. Bush-era torture has left some pundits wondering how Obama can reconcile his own actions while condemning those of his predecessor.
“Nobody can fully understand what it was like to be responsible for the safety and security of the American people in the aftermath of the worst attack on our national soil,” Obama told the Spanish-language Telemundo Tuesday. “When countries are threatened, oftentimes they act rationally in ways that in retrospect were wrong.”
The long-held Senate intelligence report, which examined more than 6 million pages of CIA material on the agency’s post-9/11 torture programs, found that CIA officials “provided inaccurate information to the White House, Congress, the Justice Department, the CIA inspector general, the media and the American public” with regard to torture practices.
While the current White House is not willing to say whether the Bush-era CIA tactics saved lives, it has been quick to note that the current president doesn’t support such actions.
“The most important question is: Should we have done it? And the answer to that question is no,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest told ABC News’ Jonathan Karl Wednesday.
“The president does not believe that the use of enhanced interrogation techniques was good for our national security. He does not believe that it was good for our moral authority. In fact, he believes that it undermined our moral authority, and that is why he banned them,” he said.
There’s just one problem with the Obama White House’s insistence that the torture-induced moral degradation of U.S. actions in the war on terror was relegated to the Bush administration: Apart from a Nobel Peace Prize, the new boss has looked a lot like the old boss.
The New York Times said as much way back in February 2009:
In little-noticed confirmation testimony recently, Obama nominees endorsed continuing the C.I.A.’s program of transferring prisoners to other countries without legal rights, and indefinitely detaining terrorism suspects without trials even if they were arrested far from a war zone.
The administration has also embraced the Bush legal team’s arguments that a lawsuit by former C.I.A. detainees should be shut down based on the “state secrets” doctrine. It has also left the door open to resuming military commission trials.
And earlier this month, after a British court cited pressure by the United States in declining to release information about the alleged torture of a detainee in American custody, the Obama administration issued a statement thanking the British government “for its continued commitment to protect sensitive national security information.”
These and other signs suggest that the administration’s changes may turn out to be less sweeping than many had hoped or feared — prompting growing worry among civil liberties groups and a sense of vindication among supporters of Bush-era policies.
That largely tacit support of the Bush-era terror policies is less important — and certainly less indicative of its probable blind eye toward torture — than how the Obama administration has filled empty government positions over the years.
Obama appointed Leon Panetta to head the CIA in 2009. Panetta carried out an extensive internal audit of the CIA’s interrogation practices, some of which contributed to the Senate report currently making headlines. But the full Panetta Review has never been released — likely because of the ongoing torture practices it would reveal.
Panetta’s relationship with torture as an Obama appointee goes beyond investigating the practices. In the early days of his tenure at the CIA, Panetta quietly opened loopholes in interrogation restrictions enacted, with much fanfare, by Obama.
That’s about the same time The Wall Street Journal declared that “it seems that the Bush administration’s antiterror architecture is gaining new legitimacy” in response to Obama’s wartime decision-making.
Obama’s embrace of Bush-era policy has only hastened in the years since — and people have noticed.
That’s why Fox News’ Ed Henry asked Earnest this week how the president can disavow Bush-era policies while filling top positions with former Bush officials like John Brennan and James Comey.
Brennan, current top dog at the CIA, is a 25-year veteran of the agency who was appointed deputy executive director under Bush before going on to head that president’s newly created Terrorist Threat Integration Center from 2003 to 2004.
Brennan left government in 2005 to pursue interests in the private sector before returning in 2009 to serve as Obama’s Homeland Security adviser. The first time Brennan came up for consideration as CIA director, he withdrew his name over concerns of his involvement in waterboarding under the Bush administration.
During a press briefing Thursday, Brennan largely defended the CIA actions revealed in the recent Senate report.
“In a limited number of cases, agency officers used interrogation techniques that had not been authorized, were abhorrent and rightly should be repudiated by all,” Brennan said.
He added: “The overwhelming majority of officers involved in the program at CIA carried out their responsibilities faithfully and in accordance with the legal and policy guidance they were provided. They did what they were asked to do in the service of our nation.”
Comey, Obama’s current FBI director, previously served as deputy attorney general during the Bush administration. During his time in that capacity, Comey endorsed enhanced interrogation techniques like waterboarding, sleep deprivation and stress positions.
The official has since reversed his position, but he also doesn’t want to discuss the new torture report.
“I’m not going to go back and talk about my prior roles,” Comey said during a recent news conference. “Maybe when I’m old and gray I can talk about it.”
Aside from his appointments, Obama’s strategies in fighting terror illustrate a disconnect between reality and his criticisms of the previous president.
Henry pointed this out in his exchange with Earnest: “You have repeatedly talked about moral authority. So can you explain how the president believes that it’s un-American to use these techniques, but it was OK to ramp up the drone policy and basically thousands of people around the world, innocent civilians, were killed? What’s the moral equivalency there? How do you have moral authority when innocent civilians are killed by drones?”
According to the current White House, “there is significant care taken and there are significant checks and balances included in the system to ensure any counterterrorism action taken by the United States of America does not put at risk innocent lives.”
Fair enough. Obama doesn’t risk innocent lives with drone strikes and his choice of torture supporters is irrelevant. Americans are to take his word: Any atrocities in the war on terror belong to Bush.
But as long as we trust our leaders at their word, here’s a little gem from Bush, circa November 2005: “We are finding terrorists and bringing them to justice. We are gathering information about where the terrorists may be hiding. We are trying to disrupt their plots and plans. Anything we do… to that end in this effort, any activity we conduct, is within the law. We do not torture.”