Obama's CIA Visit Touches On Torture Issue

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President Obama's visit to the CIA Monday comes on the heels of the release of Justice Department memos that provided the legal justification for certain interrogation techniques that many consider torture.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris. President Obama visited the CIA this afternoon. The visit follows the release last week of four secret memos that have focused new attention on CIA interrogation methods. CIA Director Leon Panetta and four previous heads of the agency argued against releasing those memos. Today, Mr. Obama told CIA staffers that he knows the past few days have been tough -that he will look after them.

President BARACK OBAMA: I will be as vigorous in protecting you as you are vigorous in protecting the American people.

NORRIS: Mr. Obama also said he's sympathetic with CIA officers who have to meet a higher standard than their enemies.

Pres. OBAMA: I understand that it's hard when you are asked to protect the American people against people who have no scruples and would willingly and gladly kill innocents. Al-Qaida is not constrained by a constitution.

NORRIS: NPR's Mary Louise Kelly has been following the story. She joins me now. Mary Louise, that reference to al-Qaida not being constrained by a constitution. The president is clearly alluding to the fact that CIA officers are constrained by the laws of this country. Did the president defend his decision to make those documents public?

MARY LOUISE KELLY: He did absolutely. The documents we're talking about, of course, are these documents from 2002-2005 - the Justice Department guidance in terms of what CIA could and could not do then with terror suspects. And Mr. Obama said today he thought that he was absolutely right, justified in releasing them, that there were exceptional circumstances surrounding that. In part, he said, so much of it was already public. It was already all out there. And he was very clear as we heard in the intro there that he will protect CIA officers. That was a big message he was trying to get across today.

He does want to close the door on past mistakes, that's what he called them: mistakes. But he said I will not support punishing those who were acting under the legal guidance that they had at the time.

NORRIS: So trying to draw a line there between the past and his administration...

KELLY: Absolutely.

NORRIS: ...what he expects in the future. We mentioned that current and former CIA leaders have attacked that decision, have criticized it. They argue that releasing the memos makes the country less secure. Did Mr. Obama respond to that specific criticism?

KELLY: Not that specific but it was implicit in everything he said. The criticism that we've heard is former CIA defenders, A, defending the techniques as saying this did produce valuable intelligence. And secondly, saying if you look ahead this is going to make CIA officers risk averse - less willing to take risk to defend the country. What Mr. Obama today said is, he said, I understand it must feel to you guys like you are operating with one hand tied behind your back. But he said what makes us special - his words - is that we uphold our values, our ideals even when it's hard. He says that makes your job hard, it makes my job hard but ultimately this is what we've got to do.

NORRIS: Now, the president went to Langley today to try to boost morale. What kind of reception did he receive?

KELLY: Big cheers, huge whooping reception when he came out, standing ovation. He was speaking to a crowd that was eager to hear him, clearly. He closed with saying the CIA's best days are yet to come; that will go down well. You know, I think if you look even, this set of memos aside, this current controversy aside, this is an agency that has been investigated relentlessly, perhaps deservedly, but relentlessly since 9/11. They have seen constant turnover in leadership. They have seen four leaders in the past five years. So to hear from a popular president coming to say, I support you, I will defend you, that will be a welcome message at Langley.

NORRIS: We only have a few seconds left, Mary Louise. But did he talk specifically about any of those techniques that have been so controversial?

KELLY: He did not. The big question hanging over some of this was waterboarding. He did not get any - into any specifics but there are a lot of questions still raised by these memos that have been out there. So, I think a lot more details yet to come that we will hear answered both, hopefully from administrators at Langley and from the White House.

NORRIS: Thank you.

KELLY: You're welcome.

NORRIS: That's NPR's Mary Louise Kelly.

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