By Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 21, 2009
President Obama traveled to the headquarters of the CIA yesterday to vow continued support for the agency despite weeks of revelations about the physical abuse and mental manipulation of terrorist suspects in its secret prisons.
Obama, greeted by raucous cheers in his first visit to the spy agency, thanked employees for their sacrifices and gave no hint of wavering from his pledge to oppose prosecutions of CIA workers who used interrogation methods that the president's own advisers have called torture.
But Obama also reiterated a position that CIA officials have opposed: that the now-banned practices were potential "mistakes" that violated the country's core principles and should never be repeated.
"What makes the United States special, and what makes you special, is precisely the fact that we are willing to uphold our values and ideals even when it's hard -- not just when it's easy," Obama told about 1,000 CIA employees, who shook the normally staid CIA headquarters building with deafening ovations, shouts and more than a few screams.
"So, yes, you've got a harder job. And so do I," he said. "And that's okay, because that's why we can take such extraordinary pride in being Americans."
His mild words immediately drew criticism from civil liberties groups that have called for an independent prosecutor to investigate whether Bush administration officials who authorized the practices committed criminal acts of torture.
"In order to uphold our values, we need to enforce the law," said Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union. "Torture is a crime. Contrary to previous comments by President Obama . . . accountability is neither retribution nor laying blame. It is an integral part of any functioning democracy and of restoring America's values and its reputation."
Obama has been under increasing pressure to investigate the CIA's interrogation program in the wake of revelations about conditions in secret prisons where nearly 100 suspected terrorists were held between 2002 and 2006. Last week, the White House ordered the release of long-classified Justice Department memos that showed how the agency sought to pressure detainees through extreme sleep deprivation, violence and waterboarding, which simulates drowning.
While the CIA has acknowledged the use of waterboarding and other harsh measures, the new memos revealed new details, including a plan to use insects to torment a detainee with a phobia. One memo, citing a report by the CIA's inspector general, said the agency had used the waterboard 183 times on a single detainee, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Zayn al-Abidin Muhammed Hussein, better known as Abu Zubaida, was waterboarded 83 times, the memo stated.
The release of the memos has been sharply criticized by several former intelligence leaders, including former CIA director Michael V. Hayden, who said the revelations could undermine future U.S. intelligence operations. Obama, however, in his 10-minute speech to CIA employees, cited "exceptional circumstances" that led to his decision to make them public. Those circumstances included an ongoing legal case that some legal scholars thought would have ultimately forced the disclosure of the memos regardless of Obama's wishes, he said.
Obama heard similar complaints during a private meeting without about 50 CIA employees prior to his speech. One official present during the private session said that Obama was asked pointed questions about the release of the memos and that there was "give-and-take" between the president and his audience of employees selected from across CIA departments.
The president made no mention of possible investigations or criminal inquiries during his public speech, and he sought to assure CIA officers that the government will "protect your identities and your security as you vigorously pursue your mission."
"Don't be discouraged that we have to acknowledge potentially we've made some mistakes. That's how we learn," he said.
Obama banned the used of harsh interrogation methods with an executive order on his second day in office.
He also appointed a panel of administration officials, including CIA Director Leon E. Panetta, to review past interrogation practices, but both Obama and Panetta have steadfastly opposed investigations or punishment for agency employees who were following government orders.
The Senate intelligence committee is conducting a parallel investigation. Yesterday, its chairman, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), urged Obama to withhold judgment on the question of prosecutions until the committee completes its work.
Feinstein, in a letter to the White House, said a review of the first two CIA detainees had been completed and "will shortly be before the committee."
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.