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Obama Seeks To Soothe Feelings At CIA After Document Release

U.S. President Barack Obama makes remarks to Central Intelligence Agency employees at CIA headquarters outside Washington.
U.S. President Barack Obama makes remarks to Central Intelligence Agency employees at CIA headquarters outside Washington.
WASHINGTON -- Last week, U.S. President Barack Obama approved the release of legal government memos written during George W. Bush’s presidency that approved the use of interrogation techniques by the CIA that many consider a form of torture, including waterboarding.

The release of those secret memos was opposed by some CIA employees, who felt it was a betrayal of their efforts to protect their country.

On April 20, Obama paid his first visit to CIA headquarters outside of Washington to reassure employees there that the White House supports their mission.

If the CIA employees were upset with Obama, they didn't show it.

Some 1,000 CIA staff greeted Obama with enthusiastic cheers, and CIA Director Leon Panetta told Obama he had the CIA's support and loyalty.

Obama traveled to CIA headquarters to explain in person why he had gone public on such a sensitive intelligence issue. First, he said, much of the information was already in the public domain, either in the mainstream media or other online outlets. And he said he was having little luck trying to keep the courts from requiring their release. The American Civil Liberties Group had sued the U.S. Justice department to see the memos.

Even if the memos' content had remained secret, Obama said he still would have stopped the CIA's use of waterboarding and other aggressive interrogation techniques, which he considers torture.

But he said he'd also have made sure that those who took part in those interrogations weren't prosecuted because when they performed the acts, they did so believing that they were acting legally, on the advice of the Justice Department.

'Don't Be Discouraged'

Obama told the CIA employees that as painful as the memos’ release may be, some good has come from it.

"Don't be discouraged by what's happened in the last few weeks. Don't be discouraged that we have to acknowledge potentially we've made some mistakes. That's how we learn," Obama said. "But the fact that we are willing to acknowledge [mistakes] and then move forward, that is precisely why I am proud to be president of the United States, and that's why you should be proud to be members of the CIA."

To me, it's just so outlandish and so outside the proper intelligence techniques that it's just inexcusable.
The question is whether CIA employees feel that by publicly revealing some of their behavior, the Obama administration is also expressing a lack of trust in the agency's ability to make its own decisions about whether unconventional methods are necessary in the face of extreme threats to the country’s security.

That question was brought into sharp focus by "The New York Times," which cited a U.S. Justice Department memo that said Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the admitted planner of the 9/11 attacks, had been subjected to waterboarding 183 times. The memo said Abu Zubaydah, the first prisoner questioned in the CIA's overseas detention program in August 2002, received the same treatment 83 times.

Can such methods ever be justified?

Simon Serfaty says yes, up to a point. Serfaty specializes in international security issues at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. He dismisses arguments that harsh interrogation techniques simply do not work.

He quotes former CIA Director Michael Hayden, who once said waterboarding led to valuable intelligence from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

Serfaty does believe that aggressive interrogation isn't productive in every case, though.

'Sense Of Urgency'

So how should Obama have confronted the interrogation policies of his predecessor?

Serfaty says, carefully. He concedes that some techniques probably were illegal, but also thinks they may have been necessary.

"It is very difficult to micromanage the decisions that were made then [when Mohammed was questioned]. What is lost sight of was -- and is -- the sense of urgency that prevailed after 9/11, the fear that another such attack was not only possible but probable, even imminent," Serfaty says. "I think President Bush had a point when he said Americans over time tended to forget a bit about 9/11 and its implications."

To Edward Atkeson, however, results aren't as important as doing the right thing. Atkeson, a retired army general, told RFE/RL that when he was an intelligence officer, such treatment wasn't permitted by the U.S. military and still isn't today.

"To me, it's just so outlandish and so outside the proper intelligence techniques that it's just inexcusable," Atkeson says. "The number -- whether he thinks of one or 300 -- doesn't make any difference to me. It's just dead wrong and unreliable, and there are professional ways to go about this, and they haven't talked about those at all. I've deliberately, in my circles, forbidden any type of mistreatment of prisoners."

As for results, Atkeson says a prisoner facing harsh interrogation, including waterboarding, would, in his words, "tell you anything" to avoid abuse. And the more sophisticated and high-ranking the prisoner, he recalls, the more credible their false answers would be.

Respects Decision

So Atkeson says he's glad the Obama administration has released the information about the interrogations.

He disagrees with the decision to give immunity to CIA agents who took part in the potentially illegal interrogations, but says he can live with it, as long as future cases are prosecuted.

"I respect their decision to simply say, 'OK, the previous leaders had led these people to believe that what they were doing was useful and proper," Atkeson says, "and everybody should understand that it is illegal and unjustifiable, and if you find people who continue to do it, they need to go to prison.' "

Atkeson says he expects CIA employees will be satisfied with that decision, as does Serfaty.

In fact, Serfaty says, Obama should be able to maintain a cordial relationship with the CIA now that the agency's interrogation techniques are formally restricted.

"His audience might even feel better and more confident and more comfortable if they come to understand and believe that they will not longer have to face those incredibly difficult choices that were forced on some of them a few years ago," Serfaty says, "because he will reassert his unequivocal determination to not allow those things to be repeated."

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