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President Obama's Doublespeak On Torture Report Explained

President Obama walks a fine line between satisfying liberals and setting a jarring precedent.

The release of the Senate Intelligence Committee's so-called "Torture Report" (so-called because it is a report about torture) has eclipsed everything else in the news, and has led to criticism of the report, the committee, and the Obama administration from both sides of the aisle. For liberals, that criticism boils down to apparent contradictions in the administration's actions regarding the release of the report, and a perceived lack of willingness to pursue accountability for what the president still calls torture.

Following the release of the report Tuesday, President Obama talked to Telemundo's José Díaz-Balart about some of these issues, including the timing of the release, of which he said, "I don't think there was ever going to be a perfect time to release the report, but my position consistently was that after having conducted this report, it was important to go ahead and release it."

This is in contrast with what many critics say is White House attempts to delay the report, but which, the white House says, were good faith negotiations over redactions to the report in order to protect American interests, operations, and personnel. You can agree or disagree with that footing, but it is entirely consistent with the past practices of this White House. The debate over transparency has become an entirely binary affair, but there really are legitimate concerns in this area. Just ask Lena Dunham's "Barry" about that.

More jarringly, the president doubled down on his former assessment of the "enhanced interrogation techniques," calling them "brutal," and reiterating that they "constituted torture in my mind." On the other hand, Obama repeatedly offered the kind of "fog of war" arguments we always hear about this sort of thing, offered not as "excuses," but as reluctance to judge.

"In the aftermath of 9/11, I think in the midst of a national trauma and uncertainty as to whether these attacks were going to repeat themselves, what's clear is that the CIA set up something very fast, without a lot of forethought to what the ramifications might be, that the lines of accountability that needed to be set up weren't always in place. Some of these techniques that were described were not only wrong, but also counterproductive because we know that oftentimes when somebody is being subjected to these kinds of techniques, that they’re willing to say anything in order to alleviate the pain. We have better ways to do things."

This sort of boomeranging is maddening to liberals, but it has been since even before the president first took office, when he said there would be no "looking backwards" on Bush-era torture. His consistent message has been that we not torture anyone anymore, but that we also consider the consequences of judging these past transgressions. In this interview, he framed it in philosophical terms, but in any case, critics of torture have a fair point when they ask what's supposed to stop us from torturing the next time we get attacked, beyond the good intentions of President Palin, if we don't prosecute these acts?

It's a fair question, but it needs to be weighed against the consequences of setting that precedent. As satisfying a DailyKos open thread as arresting George W. Bush would make, such an action would most definitely open the door for Attorney General Rick Perry to prosecute, say, Hillary Clinton for Benghazi, or President Obama for the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, and as then-Senator Obama pointed out, low-level operatives who, according to the torture report, often strenuously resisted the orders they were given. That doesn't make it right to let everyone get away with torture, it makes it the least bad choice.

At Wednesday's White House daily briefing, Press Secretary Josh Earnest did provide a useful clarification to what Obama said in his interview last night. While the president did say that "we have better ways to do things" than torture, Earnest tried to settle the question of whether the torture worked:

"The conclusion that the president reached is a principal that people on both sides can agree to, which is that the moral authority of the United States of America is one of the most powerful tools in our arsenal to protect and advance US interests around the globe. It's the view of the president that the use of these techniques, regardless of whether or not they elicit actionable national intelligence information, undermine our ability to use this powerful tool. That's why the president outlawed the techniques in his first or second day in office."

Torture is not one of those things you can dip your toe into. The revelations in the torture report are only shocking to us because they re about America, not because the torture is so horrible, as torture goes. By crossing that line, we flipped a moral switch that erased our claim to that bit of moral superiority. Those who contrast rectal feeding with beheading miss the point that while beheading is worse, neither of those actions are those of the good guys.