Obama on Torture and State Secrets

Refreshing to have a president who can respond at a press conference without needing to pause for tens of seconds while he listens to Karl Rove whisper instructions in his surgically implanted earpiece, isn’t it?

I’m kidding. Sort of.

Anyway, I thought Obama’s responses last night to Jake Tapper, Mark Knoller, and Michael Scherer’s questions about torture, torture, and state secrets (respectively) were pretty interesting. The full transcript of the press conference is here: News conference by the president, 4/29/09. Here are the interesting-to-me bits:

THE PRESIDENT: …Jake. Where’s Jake? There he is.

Q Thank you, Mr. President. You’ve said in the past that waterboarding, in your opinion, is torture. Torture is a violation of international law and the Geneva conventions. Do you believe that the previous administration sanctioned torture?

THE PRESIDENT: What I’ve said — and I will repeat — is that waterboarding violates our ideals and our values. I do believe that it is torture. I don’t think that’s just my opinion; that’s the opinion of many who’ve examined the topic. And that’s why I put an end to these practices. I am absolutely convinced it was the right thing to do — not because there might not have been information that was yielded by these various detainees who were subjected to this treatment, but because we could have gotten this information in other ways, in ways that were consistent with our values, in ways that were consistent with who we are.

I was struck by an article that I was reading the other day, talking about the fact that the British during World War II, when London was being bombed to smithereens, had 200 or so detainees. And Churchill said, we don’t torture — when the entire British — all of the British people were being subjected to unimaginable risk and threat. And the reason was that Churchill understood you start taking shortcuts, and over time that corrodes what’s best in a people. It corrodes the character of a country.

And so I strongly believe that the steps that we’ve taken to prevent these kinds of enhanced interrogation techniques will make us stronger over the long term, and make us safer over the long term, because it will put us in a position where we can still get information — in some cases, it may be harder, but part of what makes us, I think, still a beacon to the world, is that we are willing to hold true to our ideals even when it’s hard, not just when it’s easy.

At the same time, it takes away a critical recruitment tool that al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations have used to try to demonize the United States and justify the killing of civilians. And it makes us — it puts us in a much stronger position to work with our allies in the kind of international coordinated intelligence activity that can shut down these networks.

So this is a decision that I am very comfortable with. And I think the American people over time will recognize that it is better for us to stick to who we are, even when we’re taking on a unscrupulous enemy.

Okay. I’m sorry.

Q — administration sanction torture?

THE PRESIDENT: I believe that waterboarding was torture. And I think that the — whatever legal rationales were used, it was a mistake.

Mark Knoller.

Q Thank you, sir. Let me follow up, if I may, on Jake’s question. Did you read the documents recently referred to by former Vice President Cheney and others, saying that the use of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques not only protected the nation, but saved lives? And if part of the United States were under imminent threat, could you envision yourself ever authorizing the use of those enhanced interrogation techniques?

THE PRESIDENT: I have read the documents. Now, they haven’t been officially declassified and released, and so I don’t want to go into the details of them. But here’s what I can tell you — that the public reports and the public justifications for these techniques — which is that we got information from these individuals that were subjected to these techniques — doesn’t answer the core question, which is: Could we have gotten that same information without resorting to these techniques? And it doesn’t answer the broader question: Are we safer as a consequence of having used these techniques?

So when I made the decision to release these memos and when I made the decision to bar these practices, this was based on consultation with my entire national security team, and based on my understanding that ultimately I will be judged as Commander-in-Chief on how safe I’m keeping the American people. That’s the responsibility I wake up with and it’s the responsibility I go to sleep with.

And so I will do whatever is required to keep the American people safe, but I am absolutely convinced that the best way I can do that is to make sure that we are not taking shortcuts that undermine who we are. And there have been no circumstances during the course of this first hundred days in which I have seen information that would make me second-guess the decision that I’ve made.


THE PRESIDENT: …Michael Scherer of TIME.

Q Thank you, Mr. President. During the campaign you criticized President Bush’s use of the state secrets privilege. But U.S. attorneys have continued to argue the Bush position in three cases in court. How exactly does your view of state secrets differ from President Bush’s? And do you believe Presidents should be able to derail entire lawsuits about warrantless wiretapping or rendition, if classified information is involved?

THE PRESIDENT: I actually think that the state secret doctrine should be modified. I think right how it’s over-broad. But keep in mind what happens is, we come into office, we’re in for a week — and suddenly we’ve got a court filing that’s coming up. And so we don’t have the time to effectively think through what, exactly, should a overarching reform of that doctrine take. We’ve got to respond to the immediate case in front of us.

I think it is appropriate to say that there are going to be cases in which national security interests are genuinely at stake, and that you can’t litigate without revealing covert activities or classified information that would genuinely compromise our safety. But searching for ways to redact, to carve out certain cases, to see what can be done so that a judge in chambers can review information without it being in open court — you know, there should be some additional tools so that it’s not such a blunt instrument. And we’re interested in pursuing that. I know that Eric Holder and Greg Craig, my White House Counsel, and others are working on that as we speak.

So, as I said, interesting stuff. For analysis, I suggest lefty attack-weasel Glenn Greenwald: Obama’s pretty words on secrecy and torture last night. From the other side of the question (if not the other side of the political spectrum), I also found the following pre-press conference pieces by Clive Crook to be worth chewing over: Obama’s needless fight over torture and More on torture prosecutions.

On the conservative side, I’m not aware of anyone grappling with the reality of what’s going on to a similar degree, but I also haven’t really been looking. Does anyone have any sources to suggest? I’m not interested in Fox News, or Rush, or Dick Cheney; I feel pretty confident that I already know their take on this, and have given them all the attention they deserve. But if there are principled conservatives engaging with the issue in an honest way, I’d be interested in reading what they have to say. Thanks.

9 Responses to “Obama on Torture and State Secrets”

  1. Craig Says:

    Rick Moran would be my suggestion:


  2. knarlyknight Says:

    “… principled conservatives engaging with the issue in an honest way?” Wow, that’d be a refreshing change. I looked and the following was the best I could find before experiencing flu-like symptoms. I think they fall short, especially compared to the stature of Obama’s statements above, but here they are, and remember: you asked for this..
    My nominee for principled conservative (despite his vapid argument that seeking prosecutions for torture is bad politics): David Frum. (I grew up listening to his mother on CBC, she was very good.) http://www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Frum

    Frum’s recent torture opinion columns:


    So ther you have it, a principled, smart conservative dealing with the issue in an honest way.

  3. jbc Says:

    Yeah, that was good. Thanks.

  4. shcb Says:

    I liked this one

  5. NorthernLite Says:

    Too many hypothetical’s in that piece for my liking.

  6. enkidu Says:

    interesting to contrast the two links

    point to craig for that Moran piece
    (gotta love that guy’s name, does he have a stars n bars kerchief?)

    and another point to that site owner for wearing it right out on his sleeve
    (see site name)

    However, he wraps up with the same old “nothing to see here, move along”


    I am not a hang high an hang em now proponent. I just want to the truth. Out in the open. In the sunshine, where we can decide whether what was done was ‘good’ or not. I think the new administration is taking exactly the right course on this. Reluctant and cautious. Letting the AG do his job. Working on the bigger things going forward. But most of all (and damn the costs) get this wound out into the light, lance the boil, disinfect, patch it up and move on.

    This passage stood out in the Moran piece:

    discuss how the Bush administration used false information extracted under torture to help justify the Iraq war.

    Torture. Plain and simple. Any means to a wrong end. Heck of a job bushie.

  7. knarlyknight Says:

    JBC – please check the queue, I believe I have a comment “awaiting moderation”

  8. CKL Says:

    Regardless of the politician’s affiliation, it never ceases to amaze and sicken me just how effectively they avoid answering questions. It’s like a bukkake of bullshit, and the only thing more appalling is how their constituents lap it up.

    jbc, something tells me I left lies.com oh so long ago not only because it became anti-conservative biased (when in the good old days it was about LIES not politics) but because the shape of modern American politics is something that makes my soul gag. Why must we decide between blithering idiots who speak their tiny minds openly and more complex individuals who obfuscate their intent with so much ambiguity that they aren’t really saying anything.

    Oh, that’s right. It’s a two party system thanks to entrenched power perpetuated by a voting public which would rather not know just how powerless they are compared to the movers and shakers of the world.

    lies.com indeed, perhaps moreso than most understand… sorry for the vent, I’ve been on a mission to unify the human race lately and the concept of nations and politicians is directly antithetical to that. I’m sure it’ll pass once some federal agency abducts me in the night and re-educates me.

  9. jbc Says:

    Thanks to everyone who provided suggested reading. I got a lot out of it.

    Here’s my reaction to the pieces I read, in the order I read them (which doesn’t match their current order in the comments; knarly’s item languished in the moderation queue until he brought it to my attention):

    * Moran – thoughtful, well-reasoned, and I basically agree with the large majority of what he says, at least on the subject of torture as practiced by the Bush administration. It was really interesting to go back and read through his own account of his conversion on the issue, and his mea culpa for having taken as long as he did to come to his current position.

    * Frum – Misses the point, intentionally I assume. Playing the partisan game in advance, by decrying the partisanship of the other side before it has actually done much of anything. Not overtly awful, but tiresome, and not very illuminating beyond the narrow confines of the subject that interests him (the pre-emptive invocation of crazy-level right-wing rancor should those charged with enforcing the law take notice of what gives every indication of being overt lawbreaking). On what I take to be the larger moral questions, Frum is silent in the National Post piece, and trots out a variation of the ludicrous ticking-bomb scenario to hypothetically test Obama in the NewMajority piece. Oh well. At least this sort of hypercompetitive yapping is coming mostly from the fringes these days, rather than from the Oval Office.

    * Wehner – What would Moran call this? “Sophistry on a stick”? Evil and wrong, for all the reasons pointed out by Moran.

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