At Friday’s impromptu presidential press conference, President Obama went a few extra innings, taking several shouted questions after he had announced the end of the presser, and one of those responses is generating a lot of wet heat in the news hole. While expressing support for CIA Director John Brennan, despite revelations that the CIA improperly investigated Senate staffers, the President also wandered into the forthcoming release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s summary of their report on the CIA’s Rendition/Detention/Interrogation program.
“(E)ven before I came into office I was very clear that in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 we did some things that were wrong. We did a whole lot of things that were right, but we tortured some folks. We did some things that were contrary to our values.”
Why is this news? As Dave Weigel points out, despite assertions to the contrary, this is not the first time the President has said that we tortured people. No, the aspect of the President’s statement that’s generating almost all of the attention isn’t the fact that we tortured people, or that we stopped torturing people, or that no one has been held accountable for it, but rather, the oddly casual phrasing he used in his off-the-cuff remark.
Admittedly, it was almost as awkward as that time Tomás de Torquemada announced to reporters that “we inquisitioned a bunch of dudes,” or when Captain Edward Smith tweeted “There aren’t enough lifeboats for all my peeps! #unsinkabilityFAIL,” but if there is any news at all in the President’s remarks on torture, it is his doubling-down on the “no look-backs” policy his administration has taken all along on the issue. That’s still not news, but the President’s remarks on that score were rather emphatically dismissive of his left flank.
“I understand why it happened. I think it’s important when we look back to recall how afraid people were after the Twin Towers fell and the Pentagon had been hit and the plane in Pennsylvania had fallen, and people did not know whether more attacks were imminent, and there was enormous pressure on our law enforcement and our national security teams to try to deal with this. And it’s important for us not to feel too sanctimonious in retrospect about the tough job that those folks had. And a lot of those folks were working hard under enormous pressure and are real patriots.”
The other bit of “news” in the report will be that the torture didn’t actually yield any useful information, which is something we also already knew, but which also gets at the fundamental problem with President Obama’s attitude toward his “sanctimonious” left, those who demand accountability for the torture that occurred, and with the torture itself.
I’m anti-torture, but I also understand the difficulty the administration faced in deciding whether or not to prosecute Bush-era acts of torture. I don’t think there is anyone who believes that the CIA never tortured anyone before 9/11, or did a whole bunch of other stuff they weren’t supposed to, but they never tried to get the law to say it was okay, and theoretically, if caught, they’d get the Mission: Impossible disavowal treatment.
The real problem wasn’t the actual torture, but the fact that the Bush administration tried to make the torture legal. That is, in effect, what they did, and that would make it tough to prosecute the individuals who carried it out, and it would make it unfair. Taking those prosecutions up the ladder would have had similarly limited chances for success, and would have declared open season on all future executive branches. The cost/benefit ratio simply wasn’t there.
But there’s a severe moral danger in how the President explained this. By invoking “how afraid people were after the Twin Towers fell and the Pentagon had been hit and the plane in Pennsylvania had fallen, and people did not know whether more attacks were imminent, and there was enormous pressure on our law enforcement and our national security teams to try to deal with this,” he is describing the same excuses that have always attended atrocities, and ratifying their future use. I bet those armed shitbags at the border right now are plenty afraid, and are a source of enormous pressure on law enforcement.
There’s also a moral danger in putting too great an emphasis on whether or not the torture worked, because while most people will gladly say, out loud, that torture is wrong, most of them will also accept it if they think it keeps them safe, and there is an incredibly low bar for convincing people of that. Torture is the acceptable level of insect parts in the peanut butter of national security. The Bush administration’s mistake was tying to put it on the ingredient label. That’s no way to sell Skippy. Neither is putting some masking tape over it.