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In Obama's Inner Circle, Debate Over Memos' Release Was Intense

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By R. Jeffrey Smith, Michael D. Shear and Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, April 24, 2009

As President Obama met with top advisers on the evening of April 15, he faced one of the sharpest policy divides of his young administration.

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Five CIA directors -- including Leon E. Panetta and his four immediate predecessors -- and Obama's top counterterrorism adviser had expressed firm opposition to the release of interrogation details in four "top secret" memos in which Bush administration lawyers sanctioned harsh tactics.

On the other side of the issue were Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair and White House counsel Gregory B. Craig, whose colleagues during the campaign recall him expressing enthusiasm for fixing U.S. detainee policy.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates had said he supported the disclosures because he saw the information's release as inevitable and because the White House was willing to promise that CIA officers would not be prosecuted for any abuse. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen sided with Gates.

Seated in Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel's West Wing office with about a dozen of his political, legal and security appointees, Obama requested a mini-debate in which one official was chosen to argue for releasing the memos and another was assigned to argue against doing so. When it ended, Obama dictated on the spot a draft of his announcement that the documents would be released, while most of the officials watched, according to an official who was present. The disclosure happened the next day.

Obama's aides have told political allies that the last-minute conversation, which ended around 9:30 p.m., demonstrated the president's commitment to airing both sides of a debate that was particularly contentious. But it also reflected widespread angst inside the White House that a public airing and repudiation of the harsh interrogation techniques that the last administration sought to keep secret would spark a national security debate with conservatives that could undermine Obama's broader agenda.

Several top aides had argued, for example, that the question of whether to release the memos should be put before a "truth commission," effectively postponing resolution of the issue for months. But Obama vetoed the idea on the grounds that it would create the divisive debate his closest advisers feared -- a viewpoint he reiterated at a meeting with lawmakers yesterday. Craig also argued persuasively, other officials said, that the federal judge in New York overseeing a lawsuit seeking the memos' release was unlikely to approve any significant delay.

Now Obama is being lashed by former Bush appointees and is facing growing pressure to accept such a commission. Some liberal activist groups presented petitions with 250,000 signatures to Holder at a House hearing yesterday, asking him to appoint an independent prosecutor to investigate the originators of the interrogation tactics. Meanwhile, debate is swirling in Washington not only about the merits of the techniques but also about the wisdom of Obama's decision to exercise his unique authority to instantly transform the "top secret" documents into public ones.

This account is based on interviews with more than a dozen officials, some of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to talk about the internal deliberations.

Several Obama aides said the president's decision was in line with his frequent criticism during the campaign of President George W. Bush's policies on interrogations at secret prisons. On his second day in office, Obama banned the prisons and the tactics in an executive order.

The aides also said they hope the memos' release will focus public attention on the coldness and sterility of the legal justifications for abusive techniques, with Obama telling reporters in the Oval Office on Tuesday that the documents demonstrate that the nation lost its "moral bearings" in the Bush years.

A source familiar with White House views said Obama's advisers are further convinced that letting the public know exactly what the past administration sanctioned will undermine what they see as former vice president Richard B. Cheney's effort to "box Obama in" by claiming that the executive order heightened the risk of a terrorist attack.


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