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:
I am stunned our President just said "we tortured" people from the podium. This is a PR victory for our enemies. Make it stop. Make it stop.— Amanda Carpenter (@amandacarpenter) August 1, 2014
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.