Obama Backs CIA Chief John Brennan

Obama Backs CIA Chief John Brennan

By Alexis Simendinger - August 2, 2014

President Obama said U.S. intelligence officials “crossed a line” after the 9/11 attacks and “tortured some folks” during the George W. Bush administration, conclusions he said on Friday will be described in a long-awaited report by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, portions of which he and his counsels have agreed to declassify.

The committee had been expected to publicly release what it could of its lengthy investigation within weeks.

“We did some things that were contrary to our values,” Obama said during a news conference in which he also discussed stalemates with Congress; Russia’s continuing aggression toward Ukraine; violence in Gaza; the spread of Ebola; and a brightening U.S. economy.

“I have full confidence in John Brennan,” Obama said, referring to his CIA director, whose role in the interrogation program used against suspected terrorists in the wake of the al-Qaeda attacks nearly 13 years ago became an issue on Capitol Hill during Obama’s first term.

The president backed Brennan while acknowledging another significant black eye revealed this week after the CIA’s inspector general concluded that three of the agency’s information technology specialists and two CIA lawyers spied on the computers and communications of the Senate Intelligence Committee. The unauthorized access by executive branch personnel of computer equipment and materials used by the legislative branch was a serious breach, alleged to have occurred because CIA personnel feared that the agency and some employees would be in legal jeopardy following Senate disclosures about past use of torture techniques.

The Bush-era counterterrorism operation, investigated by the Senate committee for years on a bipartisan basis, is known as the CIA's Rendition/Detention/Interrogation program.

During his campaign for the presidency and following his election, Obama repeatedly accused the Bush administration of water-boarding suspects and using other forms of “enhanced interrogation,” which he said violated American values and emboldened its enemies. Obama halted such practices after his 2009 inauguration.

“I believe we compromised our basic values by using torture to interrogate our enemies and detaining individuals in a way that ran counter to the rule of law,” Obama said as recently as May 2013.

In repeating that conclusion Friday, and foreshadowing a report that is expected to be harshly critical of U.S. policies, including renditions of suspects in collaboration with allied nations, the president placed himself in a corner. Some U.S. intelligence operatives who participated in the program continue to serve in the Obama administration. The president argued that torture undermined “the character of our country,” but he’s been under fire himself for the use of drones to kill suspected terrorists along with civilians in a secret program prominently associated with Brennan.

Obama defended his CIA director, who previously served as his White House counterterrorism adviser. But he conceded that CIA personnel evidenced “very poor judgment” while spying on Senate staff members, and he offered some sympathy for their actions under the Bush administration, even as he rebuked them for the conclusions spelled out in the Senate’s pending report.

The United States and intelligence personnel after 9/11 “did some things that were contrary to our values,” Obama said. “I understand why it happened.”

“It is important for us not to feel too sanctimonious in retrospect about the tough job that those folks had,” he added, countering anticipation by some critics of the Bush policies that career punishment or prosecution might await current or former intelligence operatives. “A lot of those folks were working hard under enormous pressure and are real patriots.”

A spokesman for Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Friday he had “no specifics on the timing of the study’s release.” Earlier in the week, Feinstein told reporters the committee’s summary conclusions might be made public during the August congressional recess, if the White House and the CIA completed the administration’s review, which included heavy redactions. Obama said Friday the process of deciding what can be made public was complete on his end.

On other topics, the president, who will celebrate his 53rd birthday on Monday, said that in the absence of new funding from Congress he will have to shift available appropriations to try to handle the surge of Central American migrants at the southwestern border.

“I’m going to have to act alone,” he said, reacting to the failure by Congress this week to agree on the administration’s request for $3.7 billion in supplemental funding for the Departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services. Congress recessed for five weeks without figuring out a way the House or Senate could satisfy nervous candidates from both parties so close to the November elections.

“We’re going to have to reallocate some resources,” Obama said.

Venting familiar frustrations with House Republicans, the president lamented that bipartisan agreements on tackling major policy issues still end up in politically fraught logjams on Capitol Hill.

“There’s no doubt that I can always do better on everything, including, you know, making additional calls to Speaker Boehner and, you know, having more conversations with some of the House Republican leadership,” the president said. “But in the end, the challenge I have right now is that they are not able to act even on what they say their priorities are.”

He was referring to a stripped-down border bill sponsored by the speaker -- which failed to muster enough support on Thursday but did pass largely along party lines late Friday -- and an impasse in the Senate between Democrats and Republicans, who had different approaches to a competing $2.7 billion measure.

On the continuing violence in Ukraine, Obama said he spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin again Friday. Neither Obama nor the Kremlin, in a statement released after the phone call, indicated any significant change following tightened sanctions announced by the European Union and the United States days before the two men spoke.

Obama said he told Putin the United States would continue to press the sanctions regime, but he said the United States also wanted to “resolve this issue diplomatically, if he … respects and honors the right of Ukrainians to determine their own destiny.”

“Short of going to war, there are going to be some constraints in terms of what we can do if President Putin and Russia are ignoring what should be their long-term interests,” the president told reporters. By applying sanctions and using international isolation, “we can resolve this conflict and end some of the bloodshed,” he repeated.

Turning to the Middle East, the president said Secretary of State John Kerry has been unfairly criticized for U.S. efforts to help secure a cease-fire in Gaza. Israel and Hamas did affirm a 72-hour cease-fire, but it fell apart as soon as it began. The president warned that it would take time to negotiate another.

“I think it’s going to be very hard to put a cease-fire back together again if Israelis and the international community can’t feel confident that Hamas can follow through on a cease-fire commitment,” he said.

Obama again defended Israel’s right to self-defense, and backed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s determination to destroy tunnels constructed by Hamas into Israel.

“At the same time, we have also been clear that innocent civilians in Gaza caught in the crossfire have to weigh on our conscience, and we have to do more to protect them. A cease-fire was one way in which we could stop the killing,” he said.

The president offered reassurances that the Ebola virus, spreading through three African nations, would be of minimal risk to the United States as delegations from 50 African countries arrive in Washington next week for a long-planned summit. Travelers will be screened before departing Africa and screened upon arrival in the United States, Obama said.

“We feel confident that the procedures that we put in place are appropriate.”

On a sunnier note, the president underscored growing vigor in the U.S. economy. He pointed to government data for July showing a sixth straight month of creating more than 200,000 jobs.

“The good news is the economy clearly is getting stronger,” he said. “Things are getting better. Our engines are revving a little bit louder.”

Because many pollsters say Americans believe their economic situations are not vastly improved, Obama’s eagerness to celebrate positive growth figures was noteworthy. Looking back at 2009 and initiatives his administration undertook with Congress in the wake of the Great Recession, the president said some credit is due, considering the odds.

“You know what? What we did worked, and the economy’s better,” he said.

“When I say that we’ve just had six months of more than 200,000 jobs [and] that hasn’t happened in 17 years, that shows you the power of persistence. It shows you that if you stay at it, eventually we make some progress.”

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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