President Barack Obama’s attempt to project legal and moral clarity on coercive CIA interrogation methods has instead done the opposite—creating confusion and political vulnerability over an issue that has inflamed both the left and right.
In the most recent instance, Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair acknowledged in a memo to the intelligence community that Bush-era interrogation practices yielded had "high-value information,” then omitted that admission from a public version of his assessment.
That leaves a top Obama administration official appearing to validate claims by former Vice President Dick Cheney that waterboarding and other techniques the White House regards as torture were effective in preventing terrorist attacks. And the press release created the impression the administration was trying to suppress this conclusion.
The president, who has said he wants to focus on the future rather than litigate the past, also opened himself to distraction and attack by retracting the earlier assurance by top officials that they had no plans to prosecute lawyers for former President George W. Bush who approved the “enhanced interrogation” program.
A Democratic strategist close to the White House said: “The president looked resolute, and like he had threaded the needle perfectly on the substance: The heat from the right was preposterous, and the heat from the left was manageable. But now they look like the scarecrow, pointing in both directions. They got the policy right, but they look confused and beaten down by critics."
The implications go beyond a typical Washington spat over “message control.” Obama’s moves virtually guarantee a sharp public focus on two uncomfortable questions that his team previously sought to leave vague:
*Should people be tried and even sent to prison—as many Democrats want—for what Obama regards as illegal practices under Bush?
*Even if wrong, did those practices have any positive results in stopping new attacks?
Obama’s own statements are murky on both questions.
On the first, administration sources said that White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel was articulating the White House’s true position Sunday on ABC’s “This Week” when he said Obama wants to discourage prosecutions. But his blunt-spoken statement of a position the White House usually prefers to keep comfortably vague sent liberal activists, including the influential group MoveOn, into an uproar. Obama was apparently trying to soothe these critics with his comment Tuesday that Attorney General Eric Holder was free to decide the matter on his own.
On the second matter, Obama as a candidate embraced the view that torture is both wrong and ineffective. But now that he has full access to the same top-secret documents cited by Cheney, the question cuts more sharply: Does he agree or disagree with Blair that coercive tactics produce valuable intelligence?
In a visit to the CIA Monday, he told intelligence personnel that, “What makes the United States special and what makes you special is precisely the fact that we are willing to uphold our values and ideals even when it’s hard. So, you’ve got a harder job, and so do I and that’s OK.”
Obama also shifted course Tuesday on another politically delicate issue: whether to create a blue-ribbon panel to investigate alleged anti-terror excesses from the Bush era.
“If and when there needs to be a further accounting of what took place during this period, I think for Congress to examine ways that it can be done in a bipartisan fashion….to the extent that there are independent participants who are above reproach and have credibility, that would probably be a more sensible approach to take,” the president said.
The comment represented a swerve from the line he and other aides had taken since before his inauguration in January, consistently dismissing questions about a so-called truth commission by referring to the new president’s desire to “look forwards not backwards.”
The timing of Obama’s statement, in response to the fourth and final question at an Oval Office press opportunity with Jordan’s King Abdullah, suggested something less than a planned announcement, though it was the first time the president was publicly questioned about his decision.
The public distance between Obama and Emanuel over prosecutions set off a frenzy in the White House briefing room, where reporters pushed press secretary Robert Gibbs to acknowledge that the administration had reversed itself on the prosecution issue. Gibbs, who had endorsed Emanuel’s position on Monday, awkwardly declined to address the discrepancy on Tuesday, which seemed only to intensify reporters’ insistence that he do so.
“To clear up any confusion on anything that might have been said, I would point you to what the President said,” Gibbs said
In fact, legal experts say there is virtually no chance that top officials will ever face prosecution for their decisions on the interrogation program some have described as torture.
The two versions of the memo by Blair may reflect a more basic disagreement with President Barack Obama’s decision to publish secret legal memos revealing the specifics of the coercive techniques, which the president banned on his second day in office. Some Obama officials worry that the release of the documents will make allied foreign intelligence services less likely to trust the U.S.’
“High value information came from interrogations in which those methods were used and provided a deeper understanding of the al Qa’ida organization that was attacking this country," Blair wrote in the memo to the intelligence community on the same day the administration released memos detailing the techniques, which included waterboarding, slamming detainees into "flexible" walls, and prolonged sleep deprivation.
Even the press release that was released signaled some distance with Obama by cautioning against 20-20 hindsight prompted by reading the legal memos "on a bright, sunny, safe day in April 2009."
“[W]e will absolutely defend those who relied on these memos and those guidelines,” Blair wrote in the public statement.
A non-profit think tank, the U.S. Naval Institute, also noted that the press release omitted a line claiming that Congressional leaders and executive branch officials were "repeatedly" briefed on the interrogation program and allowed it to continue.
Blair’s memo, and the broader public focus on torture tactics, was thrust into the news by Obama’s decision last week to authorize release of Bush-era documents justifying coercive interrogations in response to a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union.
Aides’ description of Obama’s agonizing decision-making process before the release, his tone during his CIA visit onday, and the uncharacteristic endorsement he offered of the value of future secrecy in security matters, all bespoke an extraordinary sensitivity at the White House to concerns that Obama would be seen by CIA officers and other intelligence personnel as unreceptive or even hostile to the needs of the intelligence community.
Now, the president and his team may have fueled that perception, while also giving an unwitting boost to the “truth commission” idea they have resisted for so long. And with Cheney joining those seeking the disclosure of even more information about the CIA anti-terror program, White House officials fears that a cascading series of disclosures will distract from Obama’s ambitious domestic agenda seem even more prescient than before.