WASHINGTON — Days after releasing top-secret memos that detailed the CIA’s use of simulated drowning while interrogating terror suspects, President Barack Obama went to the spy agency’s Virginia headquarters Monday to defend his decision and bolster the morale of its employees.
“I acted primarily because of the exceptional circumstances that surrounded these memos, particularly the fact that so much of the information was public,” Obama said.
Last week, the Justice Department published previously classified memos that described the Bush administration’s legal justification for CIA interrogation techniques that included methods criticized as torture.
Republican lawmakers and former CIA chiefs have criticized the release of the memos, contending that revealing the limits of interrogation techniques will hamper the effectiveness of interrogators.
The memos detailed the use of waterboarding, a form of simulated drowning that Attorney General Eric Holder has denounced as torture, as well as sleep deprivation, isolation and physical violence.
According to the memos, waterboarding was used on alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Muhammed 183 times in March 2003. Suspected al-Qaida logistics chief Abu Zubaydah was subjected to the treatment 83 times in August 2002.
Obama said Monday that a court case was going to force the memos to be released and that much of what they contained had already been compromised through leaks to news media.
The president urged the hundreds of CIA employees who gathered in a secure auditorium to ignore the controversy. “Don’t be discouraged by what’s happened the last few weeks,” he said.
Cheers erupted when CIA Director Leon Panetta introduced Obama, who quickly reassured the employees that they had his backing.
“I know the last few days have been difficult,” he said. “You need to know you’ve got my full support.”
But Obama also heard a reminder of the criticism his decision sparked from many in the intelligence community. Four former CIA directors and several senior agency officials opposed the release of the memos.
“You don’t get credit when things go good, but you sure get some blame when things don’t,” Obama said. Pausing when he heard an “amen” from someone in the crowd, Obama added, “I got an amen corner out there.”
He said he understands that intelligence officials sometimes feel as if they are operating with one hand tied behind their backs.
But, he said, upholding American values and ideals in the face of enemies is “what makes the United States special and what makes you special.”
Obama met privately with Panetta and about 50 CIA employees, fielding questions about his decision to release the memos and about other topics. Panetta had agreed to releasing the memos, but he also pressed for heavier censorship. The memos were only lightly redacted when they were released Thursday.
Obama has vowed not to seek prosecution of CIA agents and interrogators who took part in waterboarding and other harsh interrogation tactics.
His chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, said the administration also won’t seek prosecution for the Bush administration lawyers who wrote the memos approving the tactics.
Separately, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Sen. Dianne Feinstein sent Obama a letter Monday asking him to withhold judgment on potential prosecutions until the committee completes its investigation of the CIA’s detention and interrogation program.
The committee is looking into the treatment of each of the CIA’s 14 “high-value detainees,” a list that includes Zubaydah and Muhammed.Read Jay Bybee’s 2002 memo to John Rizzo, acting general counsel of the CIA, here.