Obama says CIA interrogation methods are 'contrary to who we are'

Partisan reactions in the US to the Senate Intelligence Committee's report on CIA torture continue to drive political debate. Reactions elsewhere to the report's findings have been more muted.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters/File
Then-Central Intelligence Agency Director Michael Hayden speaks to reporters upon his arrival in the Capitol for a meeting with the House Appropriations Committee's Select Intelligence Oversight Subcommittee hearing on CIA interrogation programs, in Washington, December 13, 2007.

President Barack Obama has addressed the Senate Intelligence Committee's report on the CIA's use of torture on detainees after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, saying the methods detailed in the report are "contrary to who we are."

He told José Díaz-Balart of Telemundo/MSNBC that some of the events in the report released Tuesday "constituted torture" while also saying that CIA interrogators "do a really tough job and they do it really well." 

Political reaction to the report in the US has broken down along partisan lines: Architects and supporters during the Bush years defend the CIA's practices as having saved lives, and most of the Republicans on the Senate committee dispute its findings. "We have no doubt that the CIA's detention program saved lives and played a vital role in weakening (al-Qaeda) while the program was in operation," six of the seven Republicans on the committee wrote in their dissent.

Nearly 10 percent of the report discusses former CIA director Michael Hayden and what it calls his "inaccurate" 2007 testimony to the committee. Mr. Hayden had testified that waterboarding was only allowed to be conducted on five days out of 30, and only twice per day in sessions lasting two hours or less. The Senate report found:

His testimony is incongruent with CIA interrogation records. For example, KSM [Khalid Sheikh Mohammed] was waterboarded on nine separate days over a two-week period. On March 13, 2003, KSM was subjected to three waterboard sessions in one day. Over March 12-13, 2003, he was subjected to five waterboard sessions in 25 hours. During that same period, he was subjected to the pouring of water for more than twelve minutes during a 24-hour period.

Mr. Hayden wrote in The Daily Telegraph yesterday that "the Senate Democrat document reads like a shrill prosecutorial screed rather than a dispassionate historical study."

Former CIA Director George Tenet told 60 Minutes in 2007 that "we don't torture people." He added: "You know, the image that's been portrayed is we sat around the campfire and said, 'Oh, boy, now we go get to torture people.' We don't torture people. Let me say that again to you, we don't torture people. OK?," Tenet told the program.

Specifically asked if the US had "waterboarded" alleged 9/11 planner Khalid Sheikh Mohamed, he said: "We do not. I don't talk about techniques." The Senate report revealed that Mr. Mohamed was subjected to simulated drowning more than 100 times.

In 2002, Mr. Tenet suggested to then President George W. Bush that CIA interrogators be exempted from the Geneva Conventions. The CIA Office of the Inspector General had written notes on a Sept. 8, 2003 interview with Tenet that he "believes that if the general public were to find out about the program, many would believe we are torturers."

Tenet also said that his "only potential moral dilemma would be if more Americans died at the hand of terrorists," and maintained a defense of torture on utilitarian grounds in a Wall Street Journal op-ed yesterday that was also signed by Hayden and Porter Goss, another former CIA director. The men wrote that "thousands of lives" had been saved due to intelligence gleaned from Mohamed and Abu Zubaydah, an alleged Al Qaeda operative who was held at a CIA blacksite in Thailand.

"Once they had become compliant due to the interrogation program, both Abu Zubaydah and KSM turned out to be invaluable sources on the al Qaeda organization," they wrote. 

The Senate torture report finds that claims of the effectiveness of the torture program were exaggerated by CIA officials. For instance it writes of an email from a CIA official that claimed "after the use of enhanced (interrogation techniques), (Abu Zubaydah) grew into what is now our most cooperative detainee" and "produced concrete results that helped save lives." The Senate authors write on page 192 of the report that "these representations were almost entirely inaccurate." 

Mr. Zubaydah's CIA interrogators abused him for 17 straight days in August 2002. The report summarizes:

The use of the CIA's enhanced interrogation techniques - including "walling, attention grasps, slapping, facial hold, stress positions, cramped confinement, white noise and sleep deprivation"— continued in "varying combinations, 24 hours a day" for 17 straight days, through August 20, 2002.

When Abu Zubaydah was left alone during this period, he was placed in a stress position, left on the waterboard with a cloth over his face, or locked in one of two confinement boxes. According to the cables, Abu Zubaydah was also subjected to the waterboard "2-4 times a day...with multiple iterations of the watering cycle during each application."'

 ... Over the course of the entire 20 day "aggressive phase of interrogation," Abu Zubaydah spent a total of 266 hours in the large (coffin size) confinement box and 29 hours in a small confinement box... The CIA interrogators told Abu Zubaydah that the only way he would leave the facility was in the coffin-shaped confinement box."

Former Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski has become the country's most senior official to admit that it had hosted one of the CIA's so-called "black sites," where torture was practiced on Al Qaeda suspects. AP reports that he said the Polish government had not authorized the abuse of detainees in 2002 and 2003. 

China and North Korea, two countries where torture is common and that are often criticized by the US government for their human rights records, quickly pounced on the opportunity to fire back at the US. Citing the Senate report and the killing in Ferguson, Missouri of Michael Brown, China's state news agency Xinhua wrote in an editorial that "America is neither a suitable role model nor a qualified judge on human rights issues in other countries... people rarely hear the US talking about its own problems, preferring to be vocal on the issues it sees in other countries, including China."

North Korea government mouthpiece KCNA wrote: “If the UNSC handles the ‘human rights issue’ in the DPRK [North Korea] while shutting its eyes to the serious human rights issue in the US, one of its permanent members, while failing to settle the pending and urgent issues directly linked with the world peace and security, it will prove itself its miserable position that it has turned into a tool for US arbitrary practices just as everybody can hear everywhere.”

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