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Obama admits CIA 'tortured some folks' but stands by Brennan over spying

President Barack Obama on Friday starkly criticised the CIA's past treatment of terror suspects, saying he could understand why the agency rushed to use controversial interrogation techniques in the aftermath of 9/11 but conceding: "We tortured some folks."

In some of the most expansive and blunt remarks on the CIA's programme of rendition and detention he has made since coming to office, Obama said the country "crossed a line" as it struggled to react to the threat of further attacks by al-Qaida. However, he also said it was important "not to feel too sanctimonious", adding that he believed intelligence officials responsible for torturing detainees were working during a period of extraordinary stress and fear.

Obama's comments come on the eve of the release of a widely-anticipated Senate report that will criticise the CIA for brutally abusing terrorist suspects in its custody in a covert programme that, the report is expected to conclude, did not yield any life-saving intelligence.

Obama banned the use of torture - which the CIA prefers to call "enhanced interrogation techniques" - shortly after he took office in 2009; a promise to do so was part of his first presidential election campaign.

Friday was not the first time since he came to the White House that Obama has used the word "torture" to describe the CIA's methodology. In 2009, for example, he said he believed that "waterboarding", one of several controversial interrogation methods used by US intelligence agencies during George W Bush's administration, constituted torture, and that "whatever legal rationales were used, it was a mistake".

However his latest comments, made at a White House press conference, expanded on his thoughts about CIA tactics, which he said "any fair-minded person would believe were torture". US officials have historically avoided using the word "torture", because of its potential legal ramifications.

Obama also strongly defended the embattled director of the CIA, John Brennan, who on Thursday was forced to apologise to the Senate intelligence committee - which produced the soon-to-be declassified report - after conceding that personnel from his agency had spied on congressional staff who were conducting the inquiry.

Brennan's extraordinary apology, which followed outright denials that CIA employees had covertly monitored computers used by congressional staff, has resulted in calls for his resignation. The CIA inspector general, David Buckley, found that the agency's personnel had improperly monitored computers set aside by Senate staff, in a covert endeavour that has been widely described as spying.

"The CIA unconstitutionally spied on Congress by hacking into Senate intelligence committee computers," Senator Mark Udall, a Democrat from Colorado, said on Thursday, calling on Brennan to step down. "This grave misconduct is not only illegal but it violates the US constitution's requirement of separation of powers."

However, the president stood by his CIA director. "I have full confidence in John Brennan," Obama said.

While "some very poor judgment" was shown by the agency, Obama said, he added: "Keep in mind though that John Brennan was the person who called for the [inspector general] report and he's already stood-up a task force to ensure that lessons are learned and mistakes are resolved."

The row involving Brennan and the spying on congressional staff is the latest in a string of controversies involving the US intelligence community, including documents leaked by the NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden that revealed the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, had misled Congress.

Obama has been steadfastly supportive of the top echelons of the intelligence establishment, while occasionally criticising their methods. His remarks about torture conducted by the CIA were among his most candid to date.

While condemning the CIA's use of torture techniques, Obama voiced sympathy for the intelligence community, saying it was placed under incredible pressure in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

"It is important for us not to feel too sanctimonious in retrospect about the tough job those folks had," he said. "A lot of those folks were working hard under enormous pressure and are real patriots."

Seeking to explain the context in which the CIA adopted its controversial programme, the president continued: "It is important, when we look back, to recall how afraid people were after the twin towers fell, and the Pentagon had been hit, and the plane in Pennsylvania had fallen and people did not know whether more attacks were imminent."

He added: "We did a whole lot of things that were right, but we tortured some folks. We did some things that were contrary to our values. I understand why it happened."

A declassified version of the CIA torture report is expected to be published in the coming days or weeks. All indications are that it will provide a damning indictment of the CIA's use of torture of terrorist suspects, arguing it was morally unjustified and did not yield particularly useful intelligence.

However the Senate's report, the result of years of investigation, reportedly stops short of using the word "torture" to describe the interrogation techniques used by the agency. Even some American media organisations ban or discourage use of the word.

On Friday, Obama showed no such reluctance. "When we engaged in some of these enhanced interrogation techniques - techniques that I believe, and I think any fair-minded person would believe were torture - we crossed a line," he said.

"That needs to be understood and accepted. We have to as a country take responsibility for that so hopefully we don't do it again in the future."

[Source: By Paul Lewis, Washington, The Guardian, London, 01Aug14]

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