Obama Calls It "Torture" on Prime Time

The East Room, the White House - Under the spotlight of his third prime-time press conference, on his 100th day in office, President Barack Obama was unequivocal in his rejection of torture on moral and ethical grounds and said specifically that waterboarding is an illegal torture technique.


"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," Obama said.

In response to a question from ABC News' Jake Tapper, Obama said that using torture "corrodes the character of a country," and banning the technique "takes away a critical recruitment tool," used by terrorist groups.

Despite asking two questions and a follow-up about the controversy over the Bush administrations torture policy, the White House press corps failed to ask about building pressure on Attorney General Eric Holder to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate possible violations of law. Any mention of criminal prosecution or investigation by Congress was conspicuously absent from the question posed by ABC's Tapper and CBS News White House correspondent Mark Knoller.

The president sidestepped former Vice President Richard Cheney's narrow argument that the brutal interrogations of terrorism suspects, which included the use of waterboarding, led to useful intelligence which prevented terrorist attacks.

"It worked. It has been enormously valuable in terms of saving lives and preventing another mass casualty attack against the United States," Cheney recently told Fox News, in reference to the use of waterboarding and other harsh methods used on captured terrorist suspects.

Cheney has been pushing for the release of classified documents, which he says will show that the highly controversial interrogation program employed by the Bush administration resulted in useful intelligence.

Obama's response was a deflection, not a frontal attack on Cheney's argument.

"And that's why I put an end to these practices. I'm 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," Obama said, speaking about his decision to outlaw torturous interrogation techniques during his first days in office.

Obama tried to reframe the argument, referring to torture as a "shortcut," the use of which does not prove that the same information could not have been produced using other methods of interrogation.

"Churchill understood, you start taking shortcuts, and over time, that corrodes what's - what's best in a people," Obama said, after referring to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill's decision to refrain from torturing captured Nazi soldiers during World War II.

Later in the conference, Obama again parried Cheney's argument, "… 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?"

The president went on to expand on the idea that torture hurts the standing of the United States internationally.

"I strongly believe that the steps that we've taken to prevent these kind 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 - 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."

When asked about the classified documents which Cheney says would demonstrate the usefulness of torturous interrogation, Obama said that he had not seen any evidence that the results of torture justify its use.

"… 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 - 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," Obama said.

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A transcript of the full exchange on torture follows:

Jake Tapper: Thank you, Mr. President. You've said in the past that waterboarding in your opinion is torture. And torture is a violation of international law and the Geneva Conventions. Do you believe that the previous administration sanctioned torture?

President 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 that 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 - the entire British - all of the British people were being subjected to unimaginable risk and threat. And - and - and the reason was that Churchill understood, you start taking shortcuts, and over time, that corrodes what's - what's best in a people.

It corrodes the character of a country.

And - and so I strongly believe that the steps that we've taken to prevent these kind 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 - 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.

Jake Tapper: Do you believe the previous administration sanctioned torture?

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

Mark 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 us? 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?

President Obama: I - 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 - 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.

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