WASHINGTON — Four former CIA directors opposed releasing classified Bush-era interrogation memos, officials say, describing objections that went all the way to the White House and slowed release of the records.
Former CIA chiefs Michael Hayden, Porter Goss, George Tenet and John Deutch all called the White House in March warning that release of the so-called "torture memos" would compromise intelligence operations, current and former officials say. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity in order to detail internal government discussions.
President Barack Obama ultimately overruled those concerns after internal discussions that intensified in the weeks after the former directors intervened. The memos were released Thursday.
Obama's personal involvement grew as the decision neared, and he even personally led a National Security Council session on the matter, said four senior administration officials.
Senior White House adviser David Axelrod, who said he also talked with Obama about the pending release of the memos in recent weeks, said the CIA directors' opposition was considered seriously but did not impede the decision-making process.
"It wasn't a matter of, it was a go and then the CIA directors weighed in and it slowed things down," Axelrod said Friday. "The fact is that he gathered all the facts throughout the process."
The memos detailed the legal rationales that senior Bush administration lawyers drew up authorizing the CIA to use simulated drowning and other harsh techniques on terror detainees.
Obama gave the matter "the appropriate reflection," Axelrod said. He said Obama's deliberations revolved around "the issue of national security versus the rule of law," and amounted to "one of the most profound issues the president of the United States has to deal with."
On March 18, the Justice Department told CIA Director Leon Panetta — as he was leaving for a foreign trip — that it would be recommending that the White House release the memos almost completely uncensored, officials said.
Panetta told Attorney General Eric Holder and officials in the White House that the administration needed to discuss the possibility that the memos' release might expose CIA officers to lawsuits on allegations of torture and abuse. Panetta also pushed for more censorship of the memos, officials said.
The Justice Department also informed other senior CIA leaders of the decision to release the memos, and, as a courtesy, told former agency directors.
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Senior CIA officials objected, arguing that the release would hurt the agency's ability to interrogate prisoners in the future. They also said the move would further tarnish CIA officers who had acted on the Bush officials' legal guidance. And they warned that the action would erode foreign intelligence services' trust in the CIA's ability to protect national security secrets, current and former officials said.
The four former directors immediately protested to the White House, officials said. The enhanced interrogation procedures outlined in the memos had been approved on Tenet's watch during the Bush administration.
Video: Reviewing the torture memos On March 19, the Justice Department requested a two-week delay in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union that asked for release of the memos. Justice officials told the court dealing with that lawsuit that it was considering releasing the memos voluntarily.
Two weeks later, Justice lawyers told the court the memos would come out on or before April 16.
As Obama mulled over the intelligence community's concerns and clashing arguments from the Justice Department that the memos needed to be released, the president's contacts, meetings and phone conversations on the Bush-era memos grew so numerous over the past month, officials said, that advisers lost count.
In addition to the NSC meeting that he chaired, Obama also held high-level sessions with Holder and other Cabinet members.
He also reached into lower rungs of the government for advice and even talked to an unidentified NSC official from the Bush administration, the officials said.
Could ACLU force release anyway?
Inside the White House, according to aides, Obama expressed concerns that releasing the memos could threaten ongoing intelligence operations as well as American officials. He also echoed the CIA chiefs' worries about U.S. relationships with always-skittish foreign intelligence services.
The Justice Department argued that the ACLU lawsuit would in the end force the administration to release the documents anyway, officials said.
Obama eventually agreed. The administration decided it would be better to make the release voluntarily, so as to not be seen as being forced to do so, the officials said.
Obama also decided that the least redacting possible should be done, White House officials said. Thus the only items blacked out included names of U.S. employees or foreign services or items related to techniques still in use.
Still, CIA officials needed reassurance about the decision, the officials said.
Obama took the unusual step of accompanying his decision with a personal letter to CIA employees. He also devoted a big share of his public statement to saying — and repeating — that he believed strongly in keeping intelligence operations secret and operations about them classified. And he said he would not apologize for doing so in the future.
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