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National

White House Tiptoes Around Usefulness Of Brutal Interrogation Tactics

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Did brutal interrogation methods after 9/11 result in actionable intelligence, information that stopped terrorist attacks or helped find Osama bin Laden? A report released yesterday by Senate Democrats clearly says no. The CIA says yes. In a few minutes, we'll hear from a former member of the House Intelligence Committee who shares that view. First, we begin with NPR's Tamara Keith who reports on why President Obama is not weighing in on the question at all. It would put him in direct opposition to his CIA chief, a fight he's avoiding.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: President Obama is more than willing to say that torture is bad, as he did in an interview with Univision's Jorge Ramos.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: My goal is to make sure, having banned this practice as one of the first things I did when I came at the office, that we don't make that mistake again.

KEITH: But when it comes to the more controversial question of whether the brutal interrogations described in the Senate report led to useful intelligence, the president and his White House aren't weighing in. Here is Obama again speaking to Univision.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OBAMA: I recognize that there's controversies in terms of some of the details, but what's not controversial is the fact that we did some things that violated who we are as a people.

KEITH: CIA Director John Brennan said in a statement the Senate Democratic report was wrong, that the enhanced interrogations did produce intelligence that thwarted attacks and saved lives. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest was asked about this disagreement repeatedly in today's briefing. Does the President agree with the CIA director or with Senate Democrats who say the CIA has been deliberately misleading about the usefulness of the intelligence gathered through severe interrogations? Earnest disputed the importance of the question.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOSH EARNEST: You know, the most important question is should we have done it? And the answer to that question is no. The president does not believe that the use of enhanced interrogation techniques was good for our national security. He does not believe that it was good for our moral authority. In fact, he believes that it undermined our moral authority, and that is why he banned them.

KEITH: Right around the same time, Democratic Senator Mark Udall from Colorado was on the Senate floor delivering a scathing critique of both the CIA and the White House. Udall says history could repeat itself if President Obama doesn't take a stronger stand.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SENATOR MARK UDALL: If there's no more leadership from the White House helping the public understand that the CIA's torture program wasn't necessary and didn't save lives or disrupt terrorist plots, then what's to stop the next White House and CIA director from supporting torture?

KEITH: Then, as he has done before, Udall called for CIA Director Brennan to resign.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UDALL: The CIA has lied to its overseers and the public, destroyed and tried to hold back evidence, spied on the Senate, made false charges against our staff, and lied about torture and the results of torture. And no one has been held to account.

KEITH: The Justice Department has declined to prosecute anyone involved with the interrogations. And Earnest reaffirmed the president's support for Brennan and the men and women of the CIA who often serve without any recognition at all. Tamara Keith, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.