President Barack Obama talks on a conference call from the Oval Office with service members in Liberia and Senegal taking part in Operation United Assistance, the U.S. military campaign to contain the Ebola virus outbreak at its source, Nov. 1, 2014.

President Barack Obama talks on a conference call from the Oval Office with service members in Liberia and Senegal taking part in Operation United Assistance, the U.S. military campaign to contain the Ebola virus outbreak at its source, Nov. 1, 2014. White House photo by Pete Souza

Despite Torture Report, Obama Is Standing By the CIA

President Obama is showing solidarity with the CIA even as it deals with the fallout of the release of the Senate’s torture report. By James Oliphant

The government on Tuesday formally washed its hands of the dark days after 2001, when the Bush administration and Central Intelligence Agency went to extreme lengths to prevent another traumatizing attack.

The declassified, redacted report by the Senate Intelligence Committee relates, at times in sickening detail, the abusive practices used against detainees in the years following the strikes on New York and Washington—and the White House made clear that it considers those days a part of the distant past. "This took place long before we were in office," one senior administration official reiterated following the report's release.

But, really, there is less distance than it seems. And there are reasons President Obama has kept his profile low with regard to the report's conclusions, why he didn't stand up before the American public to decry the extreme interrogation methods it outlined. While as recently as this summer he freely described those methods as "torture," he's also shown little inclination to second-guess his predecessor's counterterrorism strategy.

In a carefully crafted statement released as the report was coming to light, Obama discussed how in the years after 9/11, the Bush White House "faced agonizing choices" about how to pursue a stateless, shifting enemy like al-Qaida and prevent additional attacks. At the same time, administration officials spoke of the "extraordinary burden" that was placed on the intelligence community after the attacks.

It's telling that the debate surrounding the report's declassification has largely focused not on the legality—or even the brutality—of the techniques used, but on whether useful intel was gleaned from them. Certainly, that may be an attempt by Bush administration veterans and the CIA's defenders to deflect culpability, but it also reflects an ambivalence the American public has long held toward the government's response to 9/11.

More than anything, it's Obama showing an appreciation for the mind-set of the time, an environment in which a loosely-worded authorization for military force against al-Qaida passed Congress virtually unanimously, when the Patriot Act, which granted the government sweeping new surveillance and investigative powers, was enacted with little debate, and one in which, two years later, lawmakers signed off on going to war in Iraq. (Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, who was the driving force behind release of Tuesday's report, voted for all three.) It was when the government freely engaged in racial profiling and unlawful detention. And yes, it was one in which the CIA, according to the report, took its charge too far in dealing with prisoners.

In a cultural context, it was a mind-set that made Jack Bauer, the renegade counterterrorism agent who had little regard for law or ethics, one of the most iconic TV characters of his day. Bauer was fictional, but he was the man America wanted on the job—someone who obtained results by any means necessary. As ABC News pointed out this week, the public has largely viewed harsh interrogation techniques in terms of whether they save lives, with only about one-quarter of Americans believing they're never justified.

Presidents understand that results-oriented mind-set and, sometimes, they leverage it. In 2013, Obama found, to his surprise, little appetite among the public or in Congress for taking on the Assad regime in Syria. A year later, with ISIS on the march and innocent Americans beheaded on YouTube, intervening in the region became a rallying cry. It had become personal.

Obama has needed that mind-set to continue to justify the National Security Agency's surveillance regime—and to curry support for his use of drone strikes to take out terror suspects, a program operated by the very CIA condemned in the report. (Efforts to reform the NSA's data-collection practices and shift the drone program to the control of the Pentagon have gone largely nowhere—and some critics of the Senate Intelligence report worry that the drone program could, down the line, be reclassified as illegal by a subsequent administration.)

The agency was also, of course, instrumental in the president's signature national-security accomplishment, the killing of Osama bin Laden, and the debate has raged for years as to whether information gleaned from torture played a role in tracking him down.

If anything, Obama's public statement Tuesday was designed to show solidarity with the agency, something underscored by the White House. CIA agents, a senior official said, "have saved lives. They are saving lives as we speak."

In that vein, White House aides refused Tuesday to opine whether CIA employees during the Bush years in the report acted illegally—or even if the methods that were used were effective. Instead, they noted how operatives had been given legal cover for the actions by the Bush Justice Department, even though the Senate Intelligence Committee concluded that many in the agency went far beyond the legal guidelines then established. The White House also wouldn't address whether many of those same operatives work in the agency today. "We ask these people to do very hard things in very difficult places," one senior administration official said.

All of it reflected how difficult it is to as cleanly break from the past, as some of the president's allies would like. Feinstein and other longtime Senate Democrats have the luxury of looking back on their younger selves with perfect hindsight, but Obama can't flip the page so easily. The Senate report came the very same week that a U.S. commander openly fretted about departing Afghanistan, a rescue mission to save an American hostage in Yemen went awry, and the world was reminded of the slow progress made in emptying the prison at Guantanamo Bay.

Inside the White House, then, the world today may not look all that different than 12 or so years ago. And that's true in some ways for the outside, as well. After all, one of the most popular programs on television stars a renegade CIA agent who isn't afraid to break the rules.

Sometimes we want things done—and we don't want to know how we did it.