WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama acknowledged Friday that CIA interrogators tortured suspected terrorists but voiced "full confidence" in CIA Director John Brennan despite criticism from Congress and the public.
Obama rhetorically conceded that waterboarding and other brutal techniques amounted to torture, which is illegal.
"In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, we did some things that were wrong," Obama said. "We did a whole lot of things that were right, but we tortured some folks. We did some things that were contrary to our values."
Though Obama has deployed the loaded term "torture" before, his timing Friday was particularly sensitive, coming on the eve of the release of a long-awaited Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA interrogation practices, whose legality has been the subject of considerable debate.
Brennan's future, too, was more in question Friday, with growing congressional fury over revelations that the CIA covertly monitored computers used by Senate Intelligence Committee staff. With the new torture report about to become public, the news undermines Brennan's leadership when he needs it most.
"Clearly he has to prove himself," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Friday. "I don't know how he does that."
Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut said the report of CIA monitoring "renews the need for the Department of Justice to consider a criminal investigation," while Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina called it "the last in a string of events" establishing a need for "a new CIA director."
Even key lawmakers who say they are still withholding judgment stressed the delicate position Brennan finds himself in.
"If he misled Congress, that's one thing. If he was misled, that's something else," Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said Friday. "If he's misled Congress, that destroys the trust that's necessary between us."
The timing for all the Capitol Hill concern couldn't be worse for the 58-year-old Brennan or for the agency he joined as an analyst 25 years ago and has headed since March 2013.
By Wednesday, the Senate panel is expected to release the executive summary of a scathing report on the spy agency's detention and interrogation program begun during the George W. Bush administration.
Completed over five years at a reported cost of $40 million, the 6,300-page full report and its 480-page executive summary detail waterboarding and other harsh interrogation methods. Obama's characterization of those methods Friday as torture adds weight to the report, as the United States is a signatory to the legally binding United Nations Convention Against Torture.
Lawyers at the Bush White House authorized the use of several harsh interrogation tactics, including waterboarding. But McClatchy has learned that the Senate's investigators found that the CIA used techniques that were approved neither by the Justice Department nor by CIA headquarters.
The executive summary's release will thus test Brennan's ability to reassure lawmakers and the public that the agency has learned its lessons, even as he fends off calls for criminal prosecutions and demands for more aggressive congressional oversight.
"It's about time the Senate Intelligence Committee took seriously its job of ensuring that the CIA operates within the law," Faiza Patel, co-director of the Brennan Center for Justice's Liberty and National Security Program, said Friday.
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Complicating Brennan's job, and potentially threatening his credibility if not his future, is the partially public release of a report by CIA Inspector General David Buckley.
Buckley's investigation revealed that five CIA employees -- two lawyers and three information technology specialists -- improperly accessed or "caused access" to a database that only committee staff members were permitted to use. The covert access occurred while the staff was working on the interrogation report.
Buckley's inquiry also determined that a CIA crime report to the Justice Department alleging that the panel staff removed classified documents from a top-secret facility without authorization was based on "inaccurate information," according to a summary of the findings prepared for the Senate and House intelligence committees and released by the CIA.
The inspector general report's conclusions conflicted with Brennan's public denials that any monitoring took place, and followed an unusually public spat between the CIA director and lawmakers like Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, chair of the intelligence committee.
Brennan's mea culpa in recent days might be enough to clear the air, at least between him and Feinstein. More generally, Brennan still has good relations with some top lawmakers and with the Obama White House, where he once served as counterterrorism adviser.
On Friday, Obama stressed that "John Brennan was the person who called for the IG report and he's already stood up a task force to make sure that lessons are learned and mistakes are resolved."
"I think Brennan has done what he is supposed to do," said Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the ranking Republican on the Senate intelligence panel.
But some remain unconvinced.
"Unless there's new leadership, in my view, that will lead to a continuation of the strained relations and the lack of confidence that we have seen for the past months," Sen. Martin Heinrich, a New Mexico Democrat who serves on the Senate intelligence panel, said Friday.
Lesley Clark and Ali Watkins of the Washington Bureau contributed to this report.
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