White House Defends CIA Chief, Won’t Say Tactics Saved Lives

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U.S. President Barack Obama walks to the White House on December 9, 2014 in Washington, DC.

U.S. President Barack Obama walks to the White House on December 9, 2014 in Washington, DC.

Photo by Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images

President Barack Obama’s spokesman refused to say whether the president agreed with Central Intelligence Agency Director John Brennan’s contention that brutal interrogation methods saved lives.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Obama retains confidence in his CIA chief and rejected the suggestion by Democratic Senator Mark Udall that Obama “purge” his administration of anyone connected to the torture of prisoners, as outlined in a Senate report released yesterday.

“The president continues to believe that the men and women of our intelligence community are dedicated patriots,” Earnest said today.

The administration is confronting international and domestic blowback from revelations in the Senate document that terrorism suspects held by the CIA were treated more brutally than previously known. Techniques included forcing fluids into the rectum and being hung from iron bars, under a interrogation program that Obama ended in 2009.

“The president needs to purge his administration of high-level officials who were instrumental to the development and running of this program,” Udall, of Colorado, said today on the Senate floor. “For director Brennan, this means resigning.”

No Revisiting

Obama has repeatedly said since taking office that, while interrogation techniques were wrong and he wanted them ended, he had no interest in prosecuting those involved or revisiting how and why the decisions were made. In Europe, where the Bush administration policies were widely condemned a decade ago, the reaction to the report was muted.

“There’s a deep reluctance to open old wounds just as we face the challenge of Islamic State and parts of the Middle East go up in flames,” Shada Islam, director of policy at the Friends of Europe advisory group in Brussels, said in a phone interview. “Many European governments were complicit or at least turned a blind eye” at the time, he said.

In interviews yesterday with Spanish-language networks Univision and Telemundo, Obama declined to second-guess his predecessor, George W. Bush, in his administration’s decision to pursue techniques that amounted to torture.

“Nobody can fully understand what it was like to be responsible for the safety and security of the American people in the aftermath of the worst attack on our national soil,” he said on Telemundo when asked whether he would have made the same choices.

Black Sites

The report by Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee marks the most comprehensive assessment of the CIA’s so-called black site detention facilities and “enhanced interrogation techniques” on at least 119 terrorism suspects following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Brennan, in a statement yesterday following release of the Senate report, said that some of the interrogations following the Sept. 11 attacks didn’t live up to the agency’s standards. Still, he said, they were valuable.

The interrogations using what he called enhanced methods “did produce intelligence that helped thwart attack plans, capture terrorists, and save lives,” he said. “The intelligence gained from the program was critical to our understanding of al-Qaeda and continues to inform our counterterrorism efforts to this day.”

The committee report was wrong to suggest the CIA “systematically and intentionally misled” Congress and the White House about what it was doing to the prisoners, he said.

Brennan’s View

Earnest refused to directly answer whether Obama agrees with Brennan’s assessment that the interrogations resulted in vital information.

“The president’s been very clear about what he believes about these programs,” he said. “The most important question is should we have done it? And the answer to that is no.”

U.S. intelligence officials said they don’t expect the report to lead to major changes in personnel or policy at the CIA or any other agency, in part because Obama has already barred the use of extreme interrogation methods.

Earnest said any decision on prosecution would be up to Justice Department officials, while adding that they already had reviewed the situation and declined to pursue charges.

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