Obama Defends Releasing Interrogation Memos

President Obama visited the CIA, where he discussed the decision to release Justice Department memos that provided the legal justification for certain interrogation techniques that many consider torture. The visit on Monday was seen as an attempt to reassure the agency, which says it was following the law when conducting harsh interrogations.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Steve Inskeep is in Detroit on assignment. I'm Renee Montagne. And it's been a rough few days for the CIA. The release of four secret memos has focused new attention on the agency's interrogation program. Those memos detail legal guidance for the CIA during the Bush administration and they've prompted calls for congressional inquiries and for criminal prosecution. Against that backdrop, President Obama paid a visit, yesterday, to CIA Headquarters and as NPR's Mary Louise Kelly reports, he got a surprisingly warm welcome.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: It was such a warm welcome, actually, that President Obama's first challenge was to quiet the crowd.

(Soundbite of crowd shouting)

President BARACK OBAMA: Thank you.

KELLY: In the end, Mr. Obama left the job to CIA Director Leon Panetta.

Mr. LEON PANETTA (CIA Director): Thank you very, very, very, much.

(Soundbite of crowd shouting)

Mr. PANETTA: This is a very loud welcome...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PANETTA: ...from a group that's supposed to be silent warriors.

(Soundbite of applause)

KELLY: Clearly the silent warriors of the CIA needed to blow off some steam. President Obama told agency employees he understands it has been a tough time.

President OBAMA: Don't be discouraged that we have to acknowledge potentially we've made some mistakes, that's how we learn.

KELLY: The roaring reception for President Obama belies the deep concern many CIA officials feel over his decision to declassify the memos. On Fox News this past weekend, former CIA Director Mike Hayden argued that the decision puts current CIA officers in, quote, "a horrible position" - worried they could be prosecuted later for actions they had been assured were legal.

Mr. MIKE HAYDEN (Former CIA Director): You're gonna have this agency, on the front line of defending you in this current war, playing back from the line.

KELLY: Playing back from the line meaning not taking risks to protect the country. Officially CIA interrogators now abide by the rules of the U.S. Army field manual. Waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques have been banned. But President Obama has also set up a task force to evaluate whether the Army manual provides enough flexibility for CIA interrogators. And the big question hanging over all this is what happens now, if the U.S. government finds itself holding a terrorist with knowledge of an upcoming attack on the U.S. who won't talk?

CIA Director Panetta was pressed on the question at his confirmation hearing back in February.

Mr. PANETTA: If we had a ticking bomb situation and obviously whatever was being used I felt was not sufficient, I would not hesitate to go the president of the United States and request whatever additional authority I would need.

KELLY: There seems to be a general consensus on this point that whatever legal guidelines the task force eventually agrees on, the president must still be able to grant the CIA emergency authorization for more aggressive tactics. Jeffrey Smith, former general counsel for the CIA, supports this position.

Mr. JEFFREY SMITH (Former General Counsel, CIA): But it is very clear to me that a very bright line is needed with respect to what can and cannot be done. You cannot have a system of interrogation that is based on the exception, because that bright line will not exist in the field and you will begin to get deviations from that, that could be potentially troublesome.

KELLY: Richard Kerr, former deputy director of the CIA, agrees that general interrogation guidelines should be enforced. He agrees that the president should have the authority to push beyond those guidelines in a true emergency. But Kerr says the public furor over the release of the memos has done real damage, that the lesson CIA officers will take away from this episode is that they may be punished for their actions.

Mr. RICHARD KERR (Former Deputy Director, CIA): Even if they were sanctioned by the president and by the attorney general, they would be, to be frank about it, they'd be looking over their shoulder at their own administration as much as they'd be worried about the enemy.

KELLY: President Obama has promised that CIA officers who acted in good faith won't face federal prosecution. But yesterday, the chair of the Senate intelligence committee said not so fast. California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, who is leading a Senate investigation of the CIA's interrogation program, sent a letter to Mr. Obama. She wrote that the investigation will be done by the end of the year, suggesting that until then the door to future prosecutions should remain open.

Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington.

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