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Obama Refuses to Judge Bush

By Dan Froomkin
10:31 AM ET, 04/30/2009

President Obama last night offered a powerful defense of his decision to ban torture as an interrogation practice, arguing that torture "corrodes the character of a country."

And, taking on the ends-justify-the-means argument put forth by former Vice President Dick Cheney, he argued that "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."

But he notably avoided -- yet again -- saying whether or not the Bush administration, in sanctioning waterboarding and other conduct almost universally viewed as torture, violated the law. He simply called it a "mistake."

Obama's release of formerly secret "torture memos" two weeks ago, along with other new revelations, have increased pressure on the White House to endorse some sort of official investigation into the conduct of the Bush administration. Obama has repeatedly resisted doing so, saying that "we should be looking forward and not backwards."

Cheney last week dared Obama to release memos chronicling the "success of the effort." Obama last night said he had read the memos Cheney wants declassified and that nothing in them had made him doubt his decisions.

Here is the full text of Obama's comments on torture, responding to questions from Jake Tapper of ABC News and then Mark Knoller of CBS Radio, who deserves great credit for using his question to try to get the president to answer Tapper's.

Tapper: "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?"

Obama: "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."

Tapper: " -- administration sanction torture?"

Obama: "I believe that waterboarding was torture. And I think that the -- whatever legal rationales were used, it was a mistake. Mark Knoller."

Knoller: "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?"

Obama: "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."

One concern I have about what Obama said last night is that he essentially conceded that torture produced valuable information. I think that despite the numerous CYA intelligence reports to that effect, the jury is still out.

And although the story he told about Britain was moving, Michael Tomasky, blogging for the Guardian, says Obama was wrong. Britain did torture. Tomasky links to a 2005 Guardian article all about that.

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