Why It's Not Enough for Obama to Say America Tortured

If the president really believes that, will he take legally required actions to respond to it?
More
Larry Downing/Reuters

President Obama nearly made it through a press conference Friday afternoon without answering questions about the CIA's admission that it spied on a Senate committee overseeing it, then lied about that to the Justice Department. But just as he was about to leave, an outcry from the White House press corps dragged him back to talk about it. Obama said two important, and contradictory, things in response.

The first was about his CIA director: "I have full confidence in John Brennan." A host of people—from a senator to journalists—have called for Brennan's resignation or firing.

The second was: "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 things that were contrary to our values."

Obama hasn't used language that blunt—notwithstanding the tonally strange use of "folks"—to refer to what was known euphemistically as the "enhanced interrogation program." The AP's Ken Dilanian notes that he suggested that waterboarding is torture during a 2009 speech in which he trumpeted a ban on those methods.

The reaction to his remark, particularly on the right, was fierce. Here, for example, is Amanda Carpenter, a speechwriter for Senator Ted Cruz: 

But that's wrong. The problem is not that Obama said the U.S. had tortured; there's enough evidence and expertise that such a claim is defensible, even if not definitive. The problem—other than that America tortured—is that if Obama thinks the U.S. tortured, his own response has been inadequate and quite possibly in violation of the law.

There's a moral question: If torture really happened, shouldn't there be some sort of serious attempt to grapple with it? And there's a legal one: As my colleague Conor Friedersdorf and others have pointed out, the U.S. is a signatory to the UN Convention Against Torture, which compels investigation of torture and referral of violators for prosecution.

So if the president believes there was torture, why hasn't he done any of that? When did he decide that what happened rose to the level of torture? And how can he have full confidence in Brennan, who as a top official at the CIA during the Bush years was involved in designing the program—to say nothing of the agency's meddling with congressional oversight?

Obama's comments could be an important step to reckoning with a dark chapter in American history, but for now, it raises more questions than it answers.

Jump to comments
Presented by

David A. Graham

David Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity


Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity

Video

Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

The minds behind House of Cards and The Moth weigh in.

Video

A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?

Video

In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.

Video

What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.

Video

Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.

Writers

Up
Down

More in Politics

Just In