As Democratic lawmakers lined up on Tuesday to denounce the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) over a damning Senate report on the agency’s torture program, President Obama offered a more nuanced response.
The harsh techniques “did significant damage to America’s standing in the world,” Obama said in a statement, but he added that he saw no reason to “re-fight old arguments.” And he went out of his way to show sympathy for former President Bush and his team, under whom the practices described in the report took place, noting that after 9/11, the previous administration faced “agonizing choices” about how to stop another terror attack.
One likely reason for the cautious tone: Though Obama sought the White House pledging to re-establish America’s moral standing in the world, and he staunchly opposed the Bush administration’s interrogation policies, his record in office is more mixed. In short, when it comes to torture, Obama’s hands aren’t entirely clean either.
Some go further. “His record on torture has been abysmal, to the point of obstruction, concealment, and ultimate complicity,” said Wells Dixon, a senior attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, which has defended detainees who have been victims of torture.
During the 2008 Democratic primary, Obama used the issue to appeal to his party’s liberal base.
"We need a Commander in Chief who has never wavered on whether or not it is acceptable for America to torture, because it is never acceptable,” he said, accusing his chief rival, Hillary Clinton, of flip-flopping.
In one of his first acts as president, Obama signed an executive order that banned the use of torture by the CIA And three months later, his administration released Justice Department memos that revealed some of the arguments that Bush administration lawyers used to approve them. This past August, looking ahead to the release of the Senate report, Obama acknowledged, “we tortured some folks.”
But Obama never seemed eager to hold Bush officials accountable for what happened. Even before taking office, he sought to tamp down expectations on that score.
“I don’t believe that anybody is above the law,” Obama said in an interview 10 days before his inauguration. “On the other hand, I also have a belief that we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards.”
A 2009 proposal from Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) to convene a “Truth Commission” on torture died amid opposition from the White House. “We want to look forward and not back,” David Axelrod, then a top White House adviser, repeated at the time.
The Obama Justice Department did appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the abuse of prisoners, but the probe wrapped up in 2012 without bringing charges against anyone involved. Nor has Obama followed through on one of his top campaign pledges: to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, where some detainees have endured harsh interrogations.
Dixon argued that prosecuting torture isn’t just looking backwards—failing to do so makes it more likely that the program could be resuscitated going forward.
“Because there hasn’t been accountability, there's nothing to prevent a future president from reviving the CIA torture program,” he said.
There are also claims that the Obama administration itself has transferred prisoners into facilities run by allied governments where it was aware that torture had been used—a potential violation of the UN Convention Against Torture. According to a 2011 Washington Post report, top officials at the State Department, CIA, and U.S. military received “multiple warnings” about Afghan facilities via international monitors, but the U.S. continued to hand over detainees to Afghan intelligence, even after other countries had stopped. U.S. officials denied to The Post that they had received credible warnings of abuse and failed to act.
There are even questions about the administration’s cooperation with the Senate’s six-year investigation, and its commitment to seeing the eventual report made public.
White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, seen as an ally of CIA director John Brennan, recently took over negotiations with the Senate over redactions to the report. And Secretary of State John Kerry reportedly called Senate Intelligence Committee chair Dianne Feinstein and urged her delay the report’s release.
“It’s hard for me to explain this administration’s position” on making the details of torture public, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) told Politico Monday. “Without the leadership of Sen. Feinstein and her determination and the support of Democrats on the committee, there’s no chance that this would see the light of day.”
“We saw a very concerted vigorous effort to undermine publication of the report,” said Dixon.