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

Officials say the process of rolling back the controversial policy began shortly before Obama took office, when the president-elect dispatched half a dozen experts to the CIA for two days of secret briefings in the director's conference room.

At the time, Obama was leaning toward adopting the Army Field Manual rules for intelligence interrogations but wanted to receive a broader perspective. He sent Craig; retired Gen. James L. Jones, now the national security adviser; foreign policy adviser Denis McDonough; former senators David L. Boren (D-Okla.) and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.); and former CIA general counsel Jeffrey H. Smith to Langley.

During the meetings, then-CIA Director Michael V. Hayden, his deputy Steve Kappes and about 20 other senior CIA officers sought to explain the agency's counterterrorism and rendition programs and to present the best case for retaining the option of reestablishing secret prisons and using aggressive interrogation methods, according to four of those present. Hayden emphasized that the agency had discarded most of the old programs, including the secret prisons, in 2006.

The use of waterboarding ended in 2003, but Hayden said he wanted to keep the flexibility to utilize some of the other, less controversial techniques. Boren and Smith said the group was not convinced that whatever useful intelligence had been gleaned from the programs warranted keeping them as an option.

"They said that they had produced valuable intelligence," Smith said. "We took them at their word." But the group's consensus was that "whatever utility it had at the outset . . . the secret prisons and enhanced techniques were no longer playing a useful role -- the costs outweighed the gains." He said those costs included obvious damage to the nation's values and identity, and problems with U.S. allies that strongly opposed the use of such methods.

Boren, who chaired the Senate intelligence committee from 1987 to 1993 and is now president of the University of Oklahoma, said that attending the briefings was "one of the most deeply disturbing experiences I have had" and that "I wanted to take a bath when I heard it. I was ashamed of it." He said he concluded that "fear was used to justify the use of techniques that violate our values and weaken our intelligence" and that the agency did not prove those methods "are particularly effective at getting the truth."

One of those present said that when asked, the CIA officers acknowledged that some foreign intelligence agencies had refused, for example, to share information about the location of terrorism suspects for fear of becoming implicated in any eventual torture of those suspects. Sources said that Jones shared these concerns and that, as a former military officer, he worried that any use of harsh interrogations by the United States could make it more likely that American soldiers in captivity would be subjected to similar tactics.

The issue of releasing the Justice Department memos, which Craig first reviewed in December, became the focus of attention in mid-March, when the department's lawyers warned the White House of an April 2 federal court deadline that could force their hand. They told Craig they were prepared to offer a legal defense for keeping all or part of the memos secret but warned it would not be a strong case, in part because much of the information was included in a leaked report by the International Committee of the Red Cross summarizing detainee mistreatment.

Craig and others in the White House were aware of the legal and political implications of both partial and full disclosure of the memos, and with the president they began consultations on how to proceed. Meanwhile, the Justice Department received an extension from the court.

In a series of small gatherings over the next two weeks, before Obama went to Europe, he and his staff met with officials from the CIA, the Pentagon, the intelligence director's office, the State Department and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. A full National Security Council meeting and another gathering of principals followed, in which Cabinet members met in the White House situation room and were later joined by the president. Obama continued to huddle with aides on the topic during breaks in his European trip.

A key last-minute debate emerged over whether to redact details of the interrogation methods while releasing the legal explanations underpinning the approvals. Panetta had no objection to disclosing the analysis but "strongly opposed declassification of their operational content," according to an intelligence official. His fear was that it would plant doubts in foreign governments about the U.S. ability to shroud collaborative activities, and he predicted -- accurately -- that it would lead to calls for more investigations.

Gates told reporters yesterday that he "was quite concerned, as you might expect, with the potential backlash in the Middle East and in the theaters where we're involved in conflict, and that it might have a negative impact on our troops. All that said, you know, we just had a significant investigation release by the Senate Armed Services Committee. . . . And so there is a certain inevitability, I believe, that much of this will eventually come out; much has already come out. . . . I think all of us wrestled with it for quite some time, in terms of where we were on it."

Staff writers Peter Finn, Joby Warrick and Ann Scott Tyson and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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