On the Torture Report, Obama Can't Win

As the world braces for its long-awaited release, Obama is doing everything he can to avoid taking sides.

US President Barack Obama speaks about immigration reform in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC, October 24, 2013. The President renewed his call for Congress to pass sweeping immigration reform. (National Journal)

Tuesday's imminent release of the Senate's investigation into the CIA's harsh George W. Bush-era interrogation practices is further challenging President Obama's civil-liberties legacy.

As a candidate in 2008, Obama was seen as the liberal alternative to Hillary Clinton and a guardian against the counterterrorism policies of the Bush administration. In office, however, he has repeatedly disappointed his liberal base as revelations about drone killings and mass surveillance have overshadowed his campaign-trail rhetoric.

Now Obama is torn between a full-throttle embrace of the Senate Intelligence Committee's findings and an all-out repudiation of the report's release, a delicate balancing act that is further agitating many of his once-ardent supporters.

While former President Bush, Dick Cheney, and ex-CIA officials prepare to discredit the report, Obama's administration is saying publicly that it supports the decision of the Senate Intelligence Committee and Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein to release it. Still, behind the scenes, the administration has been a difficult negotiating partner for members of the committee.

"It's trying to have it both ways," said Liza Goitein, codirector of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. "It says it wants the report to come out, that it welcomes the release, but what it has done is try to actively obstruct and delay its release."

In the final days before the report is made public, the Obama administration has sought to employ one last tactic to—at the very least—make the country second-guess Feinstein's decision to move forward with the report's release.

On Friday, Secretary of State John Kerry called Feinstein to brief her on the potential security threats the report could reveal in the Middle East. The interference from one of the highest rungs of the administration was seen by several senators and transparency advocates as a last-ditch effort to torpedo the report's release.

"It is not surprising that members of the administration are raising an objection at the 11th hour, because there have been objections at every other hour," said Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democratic member of the panel, in a statement last week.

However, the administration's now-publicized concerns about national security also double as political cover for the Obama administration for any geopolitical fallout that occurs after the roughly 500-page executive summary becomes public. White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters Monday that the administration has been preparing key military targets and embassies for months.

The warning of potential violence follows an ugly, months-long dispute over redacting pseudonyms that for months dominated discussions between White House officials and Senate Intelligence officials. Tension boiled until Senate Democrats unleashed their frustrations on White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough in November during a caucus luncheon.

Still, there is a sense that the White House has tried to run out the clock ahead of the 114th Congress. Once the new Congress is sworn in, the Senate Intelligence Committee will be controlled by Republicans, who would be less likely to advocate release of the report.

"The president did the CIA's dirty work and forced their insistence that the pseudonyms be taken out, which makes the report more difficult to follow and less meaningful," says Chris Anders, senior legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. "Feinstein was forced into a take-it-or-leave-it position."

Democrats and civil-liberties advocates, however, are not the only ones irritated by the White House's strategy to support the release of the report publicly, all the while making behind-the-scenes efforts to slow-walk it over security concerns in the final hours.

Republican Sen. Richard Burr, who will take the helm of the Intelligence panel in the next Congress and has been opposed to the report's release, accused the White House of only making a half-hearted attempt to delay the release.

"It's dumbfounding to me how a secretary of State could call and ask for the release to be delayed and at the same time the White House press secretary on behalf of the president says there should be an expeditious release of this document," Burr said. "You can't have it both ways."

Some of the White House's actions in regard to the torture report have surprised outside observers. After all, in the beginning of his time as president, Obama made stopping torture a key priority. He had just been sworn into office when he issued an executive action to halt any use of the enhanced interrogation techniques that had been a hallmark of Bush's war on terror. Over time, however, Obama has forged a strong bond with CIA Director John Brennan, who once served as a key campaign adviser and has guided the war-weary president through his escalation of a targeted drone program.

But aside from a brief comment during an August press conference that "we tortured some folks," Obama appears most interested in staying out of a nasty, bitter war of words between the senators behind the report and the CIA's apologists.

On Monday, reporters asked Earnest whether Obama or his administration agreed with the Senate panel's reported findings that waterboarding and other extreme measures did not yield valuable intelligence that could not have been obtain through other, more conventional methods.

"There are a variety of views across the federal government" about the report's conclusions, Earnest said. "What I will tell you is that the use of those tactics were unwarranted, that they were inconsistent with our values and did not make us safer."

When pressed again whether Obama would weigh in more specifically after the report's release, Earnest said no. "I don't anticipate that the president will make a specific statement on this tomorrow."