As President Obama met with top advisers on the evening of April 15, he faced one of the sharpest policy divides of his young administration.
Five CIA directors -- including Leon E. Panetta and his four immediate predecessors -- and Obama's top counterterrorism adviser had expressed firm opposition to the release of interrogation details in four "top secret" memos in which Bush administration lawyers sanctioned harsh tactics.
On the other side of the issue were Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair and White House counsel Gregory B. Craig, whose colleagues during the campaign recall him expressing enthusiasm for fixing U.S. detainee policy.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates had said he supported the disclosures because he saw the information's release as inevitable and because the White House was willing to promise that CIA officers would not be prosecuted for any abuse. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen sided with Gates.
Seated in Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel's West Wing office with about a dozen of his political, legal and security appointees, Obama requested a mini-debate in which one official was chosen to argue for releasing the memos and another was assigned to argue against doing so. When it ended, Obama dictated on the spot a draft of his announcement that the documents would be released, while most of the officials watched, according to an official who was present. The disclosure happened the next day.
Obama's aides have told political allies that the last-minute conversation, which ended around 9:30 p.m., demonstrated the president's commitment to airing both sides of a debate that was particularly contentious. But it also reflected widespread angst inside the White House that a public airing and repudiation of the harsh interrogation techniques that the last administration sought to keep secret would spark a national security debate with conservatives that could undermine Obama's broader agenda.
Several top aides had argued, for example, that the question of whether to release the memos should be put before a "truth commission," effectively postponing resolution of the issue for months. But Obama vetoed the idea on the grounds that it would create the divisive debate his closest advisers feared -- a viewpoint he reiterated at a meeting with lawmakers yesterday. Craig also argued persuasively, other officials said, that the federal judge in New York overseeing a lawsuit seeking the memos' release was unlikely to approve any significant delay.
Now Obama is being lashed by former Bush appointees and is facing growing pressure to accept such a commission. Some liberal activist groups presented petitions with 250,000 signatures to Holder at a House hearing yesterday, asking him to appoint an independent prosecutor to investigate the originators of the interrogation tactics. Meanwhile, debate is swirling in Washington not only about the merits of the techniques but also about the wisdom of Obama's decision to exercise his unique authority to instantly transform the "top secret" documents into public ones.
This account is based on interviews with more than a dozen officials, some of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to talk about the internal deliberations.
In line with campaign criticism
Several Obama aides said the president's decision was in line with his frequent criticism during the campaign of President George W. Bush's policies on interrogations at secret prisons. On his second day in office, Obama banned the prisons and the tactics in an executive order.
The aides also said they hope the memos' release will focus public attention on the coldness and sterility of the legal justifications for abusive techniques, with Obama telling reporters in the Oval Office on Tuesday that the documents demonstrate that the nation lost its "moral bearings" in the Bush years.
A source familiar with White House views said Obama's advisers are further convinced that letting the public know exactly what the past administration sanctioned will undermine what they see as former vice president Richard B. Cheney's effort to "box Obama in" by claiming that the executive order heightened the risk of a terrorist attack.
Officials say the process of rolling back the controversial policy began shortly before Obama took office, when the president-elect dispatched half a dozen experts to the CIA for two days of secret briefings in the director's conference room.
At the time, Obama was leaning toward adopting the Army Field Manual rules for intelligence interrogations but wanted to receive a broader perspective. He sent Craig; retired Gen. James L. Jones, now the national security adviser; foreign policy adviser Denis McDonough; former senators David L. Boren (D-Okla.) and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.); and former CIA general counsel Jeffrey H. Smith to Langley.
During the meetings, then-CIA Director Michael V. Hayden, his deputy Steve Kappes and about 20 other senior CIA officers sought to explain the agency's counterterrorism and rendition programs and to present the best case for retaining the option of reestablishing secret prisons and using aggressive interrogation methods, according to four of those present. Hayden emphasized that the agency had discarded most of the old programs, including the secret prisons, in 2006.
The use of waterboarding ended in 2003, but Hayden said he wanted to keep the flexibility to utilize some of the other, less controversial techniques. Boren and Smith said the group was not convinced that whatever useful intelligence had been gleaned from the programs warranted keeping them as an option.
"They said that they had produced valuable intelligence," Smith said. "We took them at their word." But the group's consensus was that "whatever utility it had at the outset . . . the secret prisons and enhanced techniques were no longer playing a useful role -- the costs outweighed the gains." He said those costs included obvious damage to the nation's values and identity, and problems with U.S. allies that strongly opposed the use of such methods.
Boren, who chaired the Senate intelligence committee from 1987 to 1993 and is now president of the University of Oklahoma, said that attending the briefings was "one of the most deeply disturbing experiences I have had" and that "I wanted to take a bath when I heard it. I was ashamed of it." He said he concluded that "fear was used to justify the use of techniques that violate our values and weaken our intelligence" and that the agency did not prove those methods "are particularly effective at getting the truth."
One of those present said that when asked, the CIA officers acknowledged that some foreign intelligence agencies had refused, for example, to share information about the location of terrorism suspects for fear of becoming implicated in any eventual torture of those suspects. Sources said that Jones shared these concerns and that, as a former military officer, he worried that any use of harsh interrogations by the United States could make it more likely that American soldiers in captivity would be subjected to similar tactics.
The issue of releasing the Justice Department memos, which Craig first reviewed in December, became the focus of attention in mid-March, when the department's lawyers warned the White House of an April 2 federal court deadline that could force their hand. They told Craig they were prepared to offer a legal defense for keeping all or part of the memos secret but warned it would not be a strong case, in part because much of the information was included in a leaked report by the International Committee of the Red Cross summarizing detainee mistreatment.
Legal and political implications
Craig and others in the White House were aware of the legal and political implications of both partial and full disclosure of the memos, and with the president they began consultations on how to proceed. Meanwhile, the Justice Department received an extension from the court.
In a series of small gatherings over the next two weeks, before Obama went to Europe, he and his staff met with officials from the CIA, the Pentagon, the intelligence director's office, the State Department and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. A full National Security Council meeting and another gathering of principals followed, in which Cabinet members met in the White House situation room and were later joined by the president. Obama continued to huddle with aides on the topic during breaks in his European trip.
A key last-minute debate emerged over whether to redact details of the interrogation methods while releasing the legal explanations underpinning the approvals. Panetta had no objection to disclosing the analysis but "strongly opposed declassification of their operational content," according to an intelligence official. His fear was that it would plant doubts in foreign governments about the U.S. ability to shroud collaborative activities, and he predicted -- accurately -- that it would lead to calls for more investigations.
Gates told reporters yesterday that he "was quite concerned, as you might expect, with the potential backlash in the Middle East and in the theaters where we're involved in conflict, and that it might have a negative impact on our troops. All that said, you know, we just had a significant investigation release by the Senate Armed Services Committee. . . . And so there is a certain inevitability, I believe, that much of this will eventually come out; much has already come out. . . . I think all of us wrestled with it for quite some time, in terms of where we were on it."
Staff writers Peter Finn, Joby Warrick and Ann Scott Tyson and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.