At CIA, Obama defends release of memos

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If rank-and-file employees at the nation’s top spy agency are angry over President Obama’s release of secret memos on sensitive interrogation practices last week, they are keeping their feelings well-hidden.

Several employees jumped out of their chairs when he arrived for a question-and-answer session at CIA headquarters Monday, cheering and holding up pictures of the president and copies of his autobiography, “Dreams from My Father.”

The raucous reception was a far more enthusiastic than during visits by previous presidents; some of the more than 1,000 staffers who attended waited in line for six hours.

Mr. Obama, on a damage-control visit to the sprawling headquarters in Northern Virginia, told the CIA staffers that they should not be “discouraged” by the public airing of the agency’s past conduct.

“Don’t be discouraged that we have to acknowledge potentially we’ve made some mistakes. That’s how we learn,” the president said.

Despite the warm reception, privately some CIA employees expressed concern at how the administration would handle future sensitive documents that could result in the disclosure of covert operations or personnel.

Agents said there was an underlying concern that the CIA would have trouble adjusting if each new administration brought in its own policies and standards on disclosure. Some expressed a desire for consistency in policy direction from the White House, no matter who is president.

Although employees would not speak for attribution, it was a tension Mr. Obama addressed directly in his remarks, saying he will never allow identities to be exposed.

“I have fought to protect the integrity of classified information in the past, and I will do so in the future. And there is nothing more important than protecting the identity of CIA officers,” Mr. Obama said. “I will be as vigorous in protecting you as you are vigorous in protecting the American people.”

The president spoke in the CIA’s main hall. Behind him were 89 stars representing CIA employees killed on assignment - many of whose names will never be known to the public.

Last week, while he was traveling in Latin America, Mr. Obama had his administration release four memos detailing enhanced interrogation techniques, which some critics said showed the U.S. allowed torture.

Mr. Obama said his hand was forced by a pending lawsuit but that he wanted to make the memos public anyway. He said many of the details had already been reported, and that releasing the memos would correct some inaccurate information.

Among the new information that hadn’t been public were detailed explanations of how interrogation techniques were performed and their intended effects on detainees.

The memos showed a meticulous series of lines being drawn, including a 2002 memo allowing interrogators to put harmless insects such as caterpillars into the cell of one detainee who had a fear of insects. The interrogators were told they could tell the detainee the insects could sting, though they must also tell him the sting would not cause severe pain or death.

Mr. Obama said American interrogators must abide by tighter restrictions than those they are fighting.

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