Torture memo release for Muslim appeasing has put US in danger

President Obama visited the CIA headquarters yesterday to placate officials dismayed by his decision to release top secret “torture” memos, a move that has provoked accusations that he is willing to compromise America’s safety out of political correctness.

Mr Obama’s first visit to the CIA, to boost morale there and shore up his own reputation, came as his decision to release the memos detailing brutal interrogation sessions of terror suspects continued to attract criticism.

There were claims from inside the agency’s ranks that the move had undermined its ability to extract vital intelligence from America’s enemies, and could even blow the cover of some secret operatives.

Michael Hayden, who ran the CIA under President Bush, said before Mr Obama’s visit that the release of the memos had compromised the CIA’s intelligence gathering work and, in effect, aided America’s enemies.

Mr Obama sought to assure CIA staff that they still had his support and that he was prepared to draw a line under the agency’s dubious recent practices.

“Don’t be discouraged by what’s happened the last few weeks,” he said. “Don’t be discouraged that we have to acknowledge potentially we have made some mistakes — that’s how we learn.

“But the fact that we are willing to acknowledge them 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.”

The meetings between President Obama and the agency’s leadership and staff in Langley, Virginia, were also overshadowed by the revelation, contained in the Bush-era memos, that the CIA had used waterboarding techniques on Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-confessed mastermind of the September 11 terror attacks, 183 times in March 2003. It suggested that the use of the technique, which simulates drowning, was far more extensive than previously admitted.

Another terror suspect, Abu Zubaydah, was waterboarded 83 times in August 2002.

A former CIA officer claimed in 2007 that Abu Zubaydah was subjected to the technique — which Mr Obama says constitutes torture and has outlawed — for 35 seconds.

In the memos legal officials of the Bush Administration argued that harsh interrogation techniques such as waterboarding, slapping and sleep deprivation did not amount to torture.

Mr Obama reiterated yesterday that he had no intention of seeking the prosecution of any CIA employees involved in waterboarding or of any Bush Administration officials who authorised and justified the policy.

He also acknowledged how the release of the memos had upset many in the CIA. “I know the last few days have been difficult,” Mr Obama told CIA staff.

He said that he had ordered the publication of the classified documents because of a freedom of information lawsuit that would have been difficult to defend.

“I have fought to protect the integrity of classified information in the past and I will do so in the future.”

However, former leaders of the agency were furious, arguing that harsh interrogation techniques had disrupted plots and saved American lives. Apart from Mr Hayden, three other former CIA directors, and Leon Panetta, the present head of CIA, opposed the release of the memos.

Mr Hayden warned that making the documents public would make it harder to get useful information from suspected terrorists in the future.

“I think that teaching our enemies our outer limits, by taking techniques off the table, we have made it more difficult in a whole host of circumstances . . . for CIA officers to defend the nation.”

Seeking to justify “ harsh interrogation” Mr Hayden denied claims that the waterboarding of Abu Zubaydah had produced no useful information. “The critical information we got from Abu Zubaydah came after we began the . . . enhanced interrogation techniques,” he said. “The facts of the case are that the use of these techniques against these terrorists made us safer — it really did work.”

Mr Hayden added that the publication of the memos had damaged the morale of CIA operatives. “Officers are saying, ‘Will this happen to me in five years because of the things I’m doing now?’.

“The basic foundation of the legitimacy of the agency’s action has shifted from some durability of law to a product of the American political process. That puts the agency in a horrible position. There will be more revelations. There will be more commissions. There will be more investigations. And this to an agency . . . that is at war and is on the front lines of defending America.

“The really dangerous effect of this is that you will have the agency officers stepping back from the kinds of things that the nation expects them to do. You’re going to have this agency on the front line of defending you in this current war playing back from the line.”

His comments were echoed by Charles Grassley, a Republican senator. “You don’t tell your enemy what you know or what you’re going to do. This allows our enemies to be properly informed and prepared to be prisoners of the US,” Mr Grassley said.

Mr Obama had argued that such harsh techniques sullied the reputation of the US abroad and served as a recruiting tool for terrorists. He said that the release of the memos was to show transparency and to close a dark chapter in US history.

Mr Obama told the CIA employees, who met him in a secure auditorium, that they had to perform their work ethically because they were guarding America against attacks from “people who have no scruples”.

He said that he understood that intelligence officials sometimes felt as if they were operating with one hand tied behind their backs. “You don’t get credit when things go good, but you sure get some blame when things don’t. I believe our nation is stronger and more secure when we deploy the full measure of both our power and the power of our values, including the rule of law. I know I can count on you to do exactly that.”

Tim Reid for Times

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