President Barack Obama admitted on Friday that the U.S. "tortured" some al-Qaida detainees captured after the 9/11 attacks — but retired Gen. Michael Hayden was disconcerted at Obama describing the controversial CIA practice that way at a news conference.
"Torture is a narrowly defined legal concept," Hayden, the former director of both the CIA and the National Security Agency, told Newsmax in an interview. "I'm disappointed that he chose to use that term in describing some of what the agency did.
"It's important to point out that what the agency did wasn't the agency's program," Hayden added. "It was America's program."
The effort involved all branches of the government during the administration of President George W. Bush — and it was "briefed to Congress and approved by the Department of Justice," he said.
At a White House news conference
, Obama made some of his most detailed comments to date about the CIA's interrogation techniques. The remarks were made ahead of a Senate report that criticizes CIA treatment of detainees that is to be released soon.
"We tortured some folks," Obama told reporters. "We did some things that were contrary to our values."
He added that he believed that the mistreatment occurred because of the pressure national security officials felt to forestall another attack. The president added that Americans should not be too "sanctimonious" about judging the agency under the guise of a seemingly safer present day.
"It's important for us not to feel too sanctimonious in retrospect about the tough job that those folks had," Obama said. "A lot of those folks were working hard under enormous pressure and are real patriots."
The harsh questioning techniques of detainees in the wake of the 9/11 attacks were used after Bush officials decided they did not amount to torture. The practices included waterboarding.
President Obama said that the techniques were employed because the U.S. feared that more attacks were imminent.
That posture, which he expressed as a presidential candidate in 2008 and early in his White House term, explains why Obama has not pushed for criminal charges against Bush-era officials who carried out the CIA program.
To this day, many Bush officials insist that what they did was not torture, which is a felony under U.S. law.
On Friday, Hayden, a retired Air Force general, complimented Obama for cautioning Americans to not be too judgmental on hindsight. He oversaw the CIA from 2006 to 2009. Before that, Hayden headed the NSA from 1999 to 2005.
Many of the controversial practices had ended before Hayden arrived at the CIA, he told Newsmax.
"I certainly appreciate his comment about folks not being too sanctimonious," Hayden said. "I have often said that I thank God that I did not have to make some of those decisions. Actually, there are a lot of people around Washington who should thank God that they did not make those decisions, too.
"They were so difficult," he added, referring to techniques employed under the backdrop of the terrorist attacks. "The people in those circumstances, which were so unprecedented, had to make very difficult decisions."
While detaining such terrorists continued under Hayden, "we had taken more than half the techniques off the table, including waterboarding, and had opened up the details of the program almost completely to Congress," he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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