Why Obama Is Saying 'Torture' Matters

Jacquelyn Martin/AP

Friday wasn't the first time President Obama used the word "torture" to describe the "enhanced interrogation techniques" used by the Central Intelligence Agency against terrorism suspects, but this time might be the most meaningful.

Obama's remarks came at the end of an impromptu session with reporters in the White House briefing room. Asked about a classified Senate report that delved into CIA actions during the Bush administration, the president responded by saying the report concluded that in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, "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."

Obama made similar remarks last year in a speech at the National Defense University—and, as far back as 2009, he referred to "waterboarding" as torture. But it carries greater weight now, with the expectation that portions of the Senate report will be declassified in the coming days at the urging of the White House.

That report, which chronicles a series of CIA abuses, does not use the word "torture" to characterize excessive interrogation practices, according to The Daily Beast. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which conducted the probe has said its findings will reveal abuse that is "chilling" and "systematic and widespread." The report is also expected to conclude that the enhanced techniques were not effective in yielding useful intelligence.

"Torture" and the connotations it carries has been a loaded word politically since George W. Bush's first term. And Obama's decision to use it immediately sparked outrage from conservatives on Twitter. (Obama was also criticized for using the colloquial "folks" to describe those interrogated.)

But it appears to have been a choice by the president to cast the CIA's practices in the most brutal terms in order to make his condemnation of them as powerful as possible, sending a signal both at home and abroad that such practices are no longer sanctioned. That way, when the report does become public, Obama's words Friday will still be echoing. At the same time, it likely will do little to mollify critics who say his administration has failed to hold CIA agents who conducted the interrogations legally accountable.

Obama also used the occasion to support CIA Director John Brennan, who apologized this week to lawmakers after an internal probe found that CIA agents had broken into computers used by the Senate Intelligence Committee. At least one member of that committee, Mark Udall of Colorado, has called for Brennan to resign. But the president seemed to put that matter to rest, for now. "I have full confidence in John Brennan," Obama said.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Going Agile:Revolutionizing Federal Digital Services Delivery

    Here’s one indication that times have changed: Harriet Tubman is going to be the next face of the twenty dollar bill. Another sign of change? The way in which the federal government arrived at that decision.

  • Cyber Risk Report: Cybercrime Trends from 2016

    In our first half 2016 cyber trends report, SurfWatch Labs threat intelligence analysts noted one key theme – the interconnected nature of cybercrime – and the second half of the year saw organizations continuing to struggle with that reality. The number of potential cyber threats, the pool of already compromised information, and the ease of finding increasingly sophisticated cybercriminal tools continued to snowball throughout the year.

  • Featured Content from RSA Conference: Dissed by NIST

    Learn more about the latest draft of the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology guidance document on authentication and lifecycle management.

  • GBC Issue Brief: The Future of 9-1-1

    A Look Into the Next Generation of Emergency Services

  • GBC Survey Report: Securing the Perimeters

    A candid survey on cybersecurity in state and local governments

  • The New IP: Moving Government Agencies Toward the Network of The Future

    Federal IT managers are looking to modernize legacy network infrastructures that are taxed by growing demands from mobile devices, video, vast amounts of data, and more. This issue brief discusses the federal government network landscape, as well as market, financial force drivers for network modernization.

  • eBook: State & Local Cybersecurity

    CenturyLink is committed to helping state and local governments meet their cybersecurity challenges. Towards that end, CenturyLink commissioned a study from the Government Business Council that looked at the perceptions, attitudes and experiences of state and local leaders around the cybersecurity issue. The results were surprising in a number of ways. Learn more about their findings and the ways in which state and local governments can combat cybersecurity threats with this eBook.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.