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Obama has called it 'torture' before — why this time was different

Chip Somodevilla/Getty

President Obama surprised many Americans on Friday when he said at a news conference that, in the wake of September 11, 2001, "We tortured some folks, we did some things that were contrary to our values."

Obama was discussing the CIA's admission that it had snooped on Senate aid computers, which he connected to the US national security community's overreaches after September 11. His comment took many by surprise because he used the T-word — torture — to describe Bush administration practices that for years were described with softened phrases like "enhanced interrogation methods." By using such a clear, charged word, and one that has real legal implications, Obama seemed to have done something very significant.

Except that this is nothing new for Obama. In April 2009, just a few months into his presidency, he rebuked former Vice President Dick Cheney's defenses of waterboarding and other Bush interrogation methods by stating outright, "I believe that waterboarding was torture and, whatever legal rationals were used, it was a mistake."

In November 2011, waterboarding came up during the Republican presidential primary, with candidates endorsing the Bush-era practice and competing over who could appear tougher on the issue. Again, Obama did not equivocate on calling it torture.

"They're wrong. Waterboarding is torture," he said at the time. "Anybody who has actually read about and understands the practice of waterboarding would say that that is torture. And that's not something we do -- period."

People were surprised because they've forgotten about this. And they've forgotten about it for two reasons.

First, our attention has shifted to controversial Obama-era national security practices — namely NSA snooping and the drone program, particularly the highly controversial signature strikes — and it can be easy to forget Obama's strongly liberal record on interrogation methods. (To be clear, he is correct that these programs were torture.)

That gets to the second reason that people forget about Obama's stance on waterboarding — on American torture programs. He has walked a line that has not terribly pleased activists or policymakers who are invested in either side of the still-ongoing fight over what to do about Bush-era interrogation programs. On the one hand, he has refused to prosecute anyone involved in the programs, infuriating many on the left who believe the responsible parties belong in prison. On the other, he has continued to push for transparency and investigation into what happened, a milder but still real form of public accountability that has upset many conservatives. So there's not much of a constituency for his position.

And that gets to the actual significance of his statement today. Obama has been pushing, for months, for the Senate Intelligence Committee to release its classified 6,300-page report on Bush-era interrogation programs. Intelligence agencies and some lawmakers have opposed releasing the document, which is known colloquially as the "torture report." But Obama has said that opening it up to the public would be crucial for understanding post-9/11 abuses.

After a few months of fighting, Obama got his way: the report could be released to the public as soon as next week. The report is the result of an extensive investigation of rendition, detention, and interrogation programs (sometimes called RDI) and people who have seen it describe it to reporters as showing "horrific, systemic, and widespread" abuses, according to the Daily Beast. It does not use the word torture — a word that can have enormous legal implications if used in such an official document. But Obama does.