Monday, April 20, 2009

Obama to give pep talk to CIA after torture memos

April 21

US President Barack Obama visits the CIA Monday to offer a public morale boost, days after revealing stunning details of the agency's harsh interrogation program adopted under the Bush administration.

The White House said Obama would talk during the visit to Langley, Virginia, about the "importance of the CIA's mission" to US national security, even as explosive new details emerged over the use of waterboarding, or near drowning, of top Al-Qaeda terror suspects.

The president's release of the memos last week, after days of deep thought about how to respond to a court order requiring the release of documents, exposed him to fierce political heat on all sides.

Some political opponents and members of the intelligence community worried the move would tie the hands of the agency in future, damage individual agents who carried out the questioning or offer a propaganda tool to US enemies.

Human rights groups were furious though that Obama ruled out prosecutions of CIA operatives who carried out the interrogations which they view as torture, by reasoning the agents were acting on orders to defend their country.

The former head of the Central Intelligence Agency, Michael Hayden, warned Sunday that the release of the documents could still leave agents vulnerable to civil lawsuits or congressional probes targeting CIA operatives who relied on the Bush-era memos to carry out harsh interrogations.

"There will be more revelations. There will be more commissions. There will be more investigations," he told the TV program "Fox News Sunday."

This is an agency, he added, "that is at war and is on the frontlines of defending America."

The harsh interrogation techniques, Hayden insisted, had succeeded in combatting Al-Qaeda and saving American lives, something he characterized as "an inconvenient truth."

Hayden, replaced as CIA chief earlier this year by Obama, assailed the decision to release the memos -- in which Bush officials denied the methods equated to torture -- as "really dangerous" for US intelligence efforts.

Obama headed to the CIA in the wake of revelations that CIA interrogators waterboarded Al-Qaeda's September 11 attack mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and another top suspect, Abu Zubaydah, at least a combined 266 times.

The use of the near-drowning technique on the two suspected Al-Qaeda terror kingpins was contained in the small print of a Bush-era Justice Department memo released by Obama last week and highlighted by the New York Times Monday.

The document, dated May 30, 2005, revealed that "waterboarding" was used 183 times on Mohammed during March 2003 and at least 83 times on Zubaydah in August 2002.

Those totals amount to far greater use of waterboarding than has originally been reported and may give further ammunition to those who see the technique as torture and an ineffective way of eliciting information.

The New York Times recalled that in 2007 former CIA officer John Kiriakou told media organizations that Zubaydah had undergone waterboarding for only 35 seconds before agreeing to tell everything he knew.

Mohammed, the self-described planner of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, was captured in Pakistan in March 2003. Zubaydah was caught in 2002.

Hayden said Abu Zubaydah had "clammed up" after providing some "nominal information" under initial questioning.

But under harsher interrogation he "gave up more valuable information," including tips that led to the capture of another senior Al-Qaeda agent, Ramzi Binalshibh, he said.

Hayden also said Obama's own CIA director, Leon Panetta, as well as three other former CIA chiefs had warned the White House against releasing the memos outlining US interrogation techniques.

However, Janet Napolitano, Obama's homeland security secretary, defended the decision to release the memos.

"When you look at the great public need for accountability and responsibility and transparency here, and when you look at our desire to close the book on this regrettable chapter and move the country forward, it was imperative, really, that the reports be released," she said on CNN.

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