WASHINGTON — Days after releasing top-secret memos that detailed the CIA's use of simulated drowning while interrogating terror suspects, President Barack Obama went to the spy agency's Virginia headquarters on Monday to defend his decision and bolster the morale of its employees.
"I acted primarily because of the exceptional circumstances that surrounded these memos, particularly the fact that so much of the information was public," Obama said.
Last week, Obama's Justice Department published previously classified memos that described the Bush administration's legal justification for CIA interrogation techniques that included methods criticized as torture. Republican lawmakers and former CIA chiefs have criticized the release of the memos, contending that revealing the limits of interrogation techniques will hamper the effectiveness of interrogators.
The memos detailed the use of waterboarding — a form of simulated drowning that Attorney General Eric Holder has denounced as torture — as well as sleep deprivation, isolation and physical violence.
According to the declassified memos, waterboarding was used on alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Muhammed 183 times in March 2003. Suspected al-Qaida logistics chief Abu Zubaydah was subjected to the treatment 83 times in August 2002.
Obama said Monday that a court case was going to force the memos to be released and that much of what they contained had already been compromised through leaks to news media.
"I acted primarily because of the exceptional circumstances that surrounded these memos, particularly the fact that so much of the information was public," he said.
'You've got my full support'
The president urged the hundreds of CIA employees who gathered in a secure auditorium to ignore the recent controversy. "Don't be discouraged by what's happened the last few weeks," he said.
A round of cheers erupted when CIA Director Leon Panetta introduced Obama, who quickly reassured them that they had his backing.
"I know the last few days have been difficult," he said. "You need to know you've got my full support."
But Obama also heard a reminder of the intense criticism his decision sparked from many in the intelligence community. Four former CIA directors and several senior agency officials opposed the release of the memos.
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"You don't get credit when things go good, but you sure get some blame when things don't," Obama said. Pausing when he heard an "amen" from someone in the crowd, Obama added, "I got an amen corner out there."
American values and ideals
Video: Hayden: CIA memo release harms security Obama met privately with Panetta and about 50 CIA employees, fielding questions about his decision to release the memos and on other topics. Panetta had agreed to releasing the memos, but he also pressed for heavier censorship. The memos were only lightly redacted when they were released last Thursday.
Obama has vowed not to seek prosecution of CIA agents and interrogators who took part in waterboarding and other harsh interrogation tactics. His chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, said this weekend that the Obama adminstration also won't seek prosecution for the Bush administration lawyers who wrote the memos approving the tactics.
Obama told the CIA employees that the must perform their work ethically because they are guarding America against attacks from "people who have no scruples." He said that he understands that intelligence officials sometimes feel as if they are operating with one hand tied behind their backs.
But Obama said that upholding American values and ideals in the face of those enemies is "what makes the United States special and what makes you special."
Separately, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Sen. Dianne Feinstein on Monday sent Obama a letter asking him to withhold judgment on potential prosecutions until the committee completes its investigation of the CIA's detention and interrogation program. The committee is looking into the treatment of each of the CIA's 14 "high-value detainees," a list that includes Zubaydah and Khalid Sheik Muhammed.
Before heading to the CIA, Obama convened his first formal Cabinet meeting, asking department and agency chiefs to look for ways over the next 90 days to cut $100 million out of the federal budget and telling them he feared "a confidence gap" with the public.
Tough financial decisions
Back from his fence-mending trip to Latin America and the Caribbean, Obama reminded the panel that American families are making tough financial decisions and need to know the government is spending their money wisely, too.
In a brief conversation with reporters, Obama acknowledged that $100 million, by itself, wouldn't put much of a dent in a more than $3 trillion budget. But he also said that the cumulative effect of putting agencies in a budget-cutting frame of mind would ultimately make a difference and that getting started now would "set the right tone" for families struggling to make ends meet.
The meeting was being held just days after a series of "Tea Party" demonstrations across the country in which protesters challenged the administration over its massive spending to help pull the country and its financial system out of an economic nose dive unseen in decades.
Obama's nominee to be health secretary, Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas, still has not been confirmed by the Senate and was not present.
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