Obama says waterboarding was torture

April 29, 2009 6:52:26 PM PDT
President Barack Obama said Wednesday night that waterboarding authorized by former President George W. Bush was torture and that the information gained from terror suspects through its use could have been obtained by other means. "In some cases, it may be harder," he conceded at a White House news conference marking a whirlwind first 100 days in office. Obama also expressed optimism that Chrysler could remain a "going concern," possibly without filing for bankruptcy. He said "unions and creditors have come up with a set of potential concessions that they can live with," adding, "All that promises the possibility that you can get a Chrysler-Fiat merger."

The president gave assurance that one way or another Pakistan's nuclear arsenal would not fall into the hands of Islamic extremists. He said he was confident that Pakistan would handle the issue on its own but he left the door open to the U.S. taking action to secure the weapons if need be.

The prime-time news conference was the third of Obama's presidency, and the first not dominated by a recession that has thrown millions of Americans out of work.

At a town-hall style meeting in Missouri earlier in the day, as well as in the White House East Room, Obama said progress has been made in rebuilding the economy, yet more remains to be done.

"And all of this means you can expect an unrelenting, unyielding effort from this administration to strengthen our prosperity and our security - in the second hundred days, and the third hundred days, and all the days after," he said in opening his news conference. He called on Congress to enact his ambitious agenda, including health care legislation, a new energy policy and steps to impose new regulations on the financial industry to prevent a recurrence of the collapse that recently brought the economy to its knees. Obama's most notable legislative triumphs to date have been enacted on party-line votes. He said he remains eager for bipartisan cooperation with Republicans, but "I can't sort of define bipartisanship as simply being willing to accept certain theories of theirs that we tried for eight years and didn't work and the American people voted to change."

Obama also said he was "absolutely convinced" he had acted correctly in banning waterboarding, an interrogation technique that simulates drowning, and in making public the Bush administration memos detailing its use as well as other harsh methods used on terrorist suspects. "Not because there might not have been information that was yielded by these various detainees ... 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 has come under heavy criticism for his actions from former Vice President Dick Cheney and other Republicans, who have questioned whether they have rendered the country less safe.

Cheney as well as some congressional Republicans have urged Obama to release memos they say will show waterboarding was successful in obtaining information. But the president, in a White House exchange with House Republican leader John Boehner last week, said the record was equivocal.

Obama told reporters he has read the documents Cheney and others are referring to but said they are classified and declined to discuss their details.

The news conference lasted an hour and covered topics ranging from the outbreak of swine flu - which Obama referred to as the H1N1 virus, evidently in deference to U.S. pork producers - to abortion and the recent flare-up in violence in Iraq.

Alongside wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the situation in Pakistan has grown more ominous in recent days as a resurgent Taliban shows signs of strength.

Obama said he was "gravely concerned about the situation in Pakistan, not because I think that they're immediately going to be overrun and the Taliban would take over in Pakistan; more concerned that the civilian government there right now is very fragile and don't seem to have the capacity to deliver basic services, schools, health care, you know, rule of law, a judicial system that works for the majority of people."

On the auto industry, he was notably more upbeat about Chrysler's prospects for survival than an administration report issued nearly a month ago.

"I'm feeling more optimistic," he said.

Obama did not say so, but Italian automaker Fiat Group SpA is expected to sign a partnership agreement with Chrysler LLC by Thursday as part of negotiations to keep the struggling U.S. automaker alive without bankruptcy protection.

The administration has given General Motors Corp. an additional month to present a restructuring plan that meets his administration's approval.

"They're still in the process of presenting us with another plan," he said.

He added, "I would love to get the U.S. government out of the auto business as soon as possible."

On a political matter, Obama said he thought that Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter's switch from Republican to Democrat would "liberate him to cooperate on critical issues like health care, like infrastructure and job creation, areas where his inclinations were to work with us but he was feeling pressure not to."

Specter gave majority Democrats 59 votes in the Senate, pushing them one step closer to the 60 needed to overcome Republican filibusters. But Obama said he did not expect a rubber stamp Senate, an acknowledgment that his ambitious legislative agenda poses challenges. The president also said he hopes Congress will take action this year on immigration, even though Vice President Joe Biden said earlier in the day that an overhaul of the existing system may have to wait for 2010.

Obama's intensive schedule for the day demonstrated the degree to which the administration saw both possibility and peril in the 100-day marker - a symbolic milestone since Franklin Roosevelt took office in the depths of the Great Depression in 1933.

Presidential aides have derided it as a media-created "Hallmark holiday" in which the White House participates reluctantly. But they also recognize it is a time frame by which all modern presidents are judged, at least initially, and which can produce negative narratives that dog administrations for years. So the White House has jumped into the celebration with both feet, making high-level Obama advisers available anywhere they were needed over the last week and crafting the president's day to maximum advantage.

The opening act of the Obama presidency has been head-turning, not only for the dire times in which he took office but his flurry of activity.

Determined to revive the dismal economy, his signature challenge, Obama has overseen a trillion-dollar infusion of federal spending and major interventions by Washington into the private sector, from directing executive pay to seizing huge governmental ownership shares in financial institutions and possibly General Motors.

Looking forward, Obama struck a cautious note, warning that "more will be lost" in a recession that already has cost millions of Americans their homes and jobs.

Obama also has put the country on track to end the Iraq war, while escalating the one in Afghanistan.

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Associated Press writer Ben Evans contributed to this report.

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