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.
“That’s what makes us different,” he said. “Yes, you’ve got a harder job, and so do I. And that’s OK, because that’s why we can take such extraordinary pride in being Americans. And over the long term, that is why I believe we will defeat our enemies, because we’re on the better side of history.”
The president’s decision angered people on all sides. Republicans said he had put politics above security by giving terrorists exact interrogation methods they can now train to resist.
“Despite the president’s trip to Langley today, the message he sent our terror fighters last week was loud and clear - the CIA’s new mission is CYA,” said Sen. Christopher S. Bond, Missouri Republican.
Critics on the left, meanwhile, said by agreeing not to prosecute those who conducted questionable interrogations the president was giving implicit approval to criminal violations of human rights.
“No one is above the law. Prosecutions accomplish societal healing by ensuring that criminals pay their debt to society. This is as true for common criminals as it is for government officials who sanction and engage in torture,” said Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union.
He rejected claims that prosecutions would make future interrogators timid, saying it would be “a good thing for America if CIA interrogators hesitated before entering into this kind of criminal conduct again.”
Current CIA Director Leon E. Panetta and past directors opposed the memos’ release.
Mr. Panetta joined Mr. Obama for his remarks Monday, saying he and his employees give the president their “full loyalty and support.” But, he also warned against revisiting past interrogation debates.
“This is a time for reflection, not retribution,” he said as he introduced the president. “We must be careful not to spend so much time and energy in laying blame for the past that it interferes with our ability to focus on the fundamental mission we have for today and for tomorrow, that of defeating our enemy and keeping our nation safe.”
In his remarks to employees, Mr. Obama noted that in addition to fighting terrorists, preventing cyberattacks and dealing with failed states, they now have another task, underscored by recent events: “Now we have to add to our list piracy.”
Before his speech, Mr. Obama spent 45 minutes with a smaller group of 60 CIA employees from the agency’s four directorates, including analysts, operational officers, scientists and engineering support personnel.
The employees asked a half-dozen questions, including concerns they had regarding the release of the memos by the administration last week. The president’s replies at the private meeting were not released.