By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 23, 2009 3:34 PM
CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C., April 23 -- Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates indicated Thursday that he supported the release of sensitive memos on detainee interrogation methods last week because he viewed their ultimate disclosure as inevitable.
Gates, a former CIA director, said his foremost concern was that CIA officers who had used the interrogation techniques should be protected from prosecution.
"I felt very strongly the importance that they be protected and against all different kinds of possible prosecutions," Gates told reporters during a visit to this Marine Corps base in North Carolina.
Another concern, Gates said, was the possibility that the Obama administration's release of the memos would cause a "backlash in the Middle East" that could adversely affect U.S. forces operating there. In discussions, he said, senior administration officials realized the disclosure could be "used by al-Qaeda" to generate opposition against the United States.
Despite these concerns, Gates said he believed it was very likely that the interrogation memos would eventually become public, especially considering congressional probes and lawsuits on detainee operations.
"There is a certain inevitability, I believe, that much of this will eventually come out," he said. "Much has already come out. And therefore I was focused principally on the potential impact on the CIA professionals and on our military forces."
"Pretending that we could hold all of this and keep it all a secret even if we wanted to, I think, is probably unrealistic, so we just have to deal with it," said the defense secretary, a Republican holdover from the Bush administration.
Officials said Gates's stance on releasing the memos was fundamentally pragmatic. "If you're going to do it, you might as well do it on your terms," Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said.
Asked whether he personally supported the release, Gates said, "All of us wrestled with it." But he added that his own view was shaped by his belief that the methods would ultimately become known.
Gates said he deferred to the Justice Department on the extent of the redactions to the memos.
President Obama has ignited a major political debate over his decision to release the interrogation memos, in which Bush administration lawyers from the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel approved harsh methods for the CIA to use in extracting information from captured members of the al-Qaeda terrorist network. The techniques included sleep deprivation, slapping, nudity and waterboarding, a practice that simulates drowning and that has been widely denounced as torture.
While the release of the memos was intended to help put the issue of harsh interrogations to rest, the move instead has stirred controversy on the right and the left.
Republican elected officials, former vice president Richard B. Cheney and former CIA directors have sharply criticized Obama for releasing the memos, an action they view as a sign of weakness and a potential risk for U.S. national security. Meanwhile, liberal critics have blasted Obama for his decision not to go after CIA officers who carried out the Bush administration's "enhanced interrogation" policy, and they have demanded investigations of the officials who approved the methods.