After banning and then publicizing the most controversial interrogation practices employed by the CIA, President Obama called on the agency Monday to live up to its mission under its new marching orders.
Obama called the CIA “an indispensable tool, the tip of the spear” in national security as he addressed its employees while standing before a marble wall with 89 stars representing, anonymously, agents who have died in the line of duty.
“We live in dangerous times,” Obama said at the CIA headquarters in Virginia. “I am going to need you more than ever.”
Obama last week released legal memos written by the Bush-era Justice Department that gave the CIA authority to use harsh interrogation tactics on Al Qaeda suspects -- including waterboarding, in which drowning is simulated.
The release of the memos has drawn criticism from some current and former intelligence officials and Bush administration officials.
Former Vice President Dick Cheney has continued to defend waterboarding and other banned tactics. He demanded the declassification of the results of the interrogations to prove the value of the techniques.
However, Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. has called waterboarding “torture.” Along with other methods, it is forbidden under orders Obama signed in his first week in office.
“I have put an end to the interrogation techniques described in those memos,” Obama said Monday. “I believe that 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.”
CIA Director Leon E. Panetta drove the same message home: “We can fully protect our nation and our values at the same time,” he said Monday.
The White House sought to show that it is leaving the past behind by announcing that no CIA agents would be prosecuted for interrogations sanctioned under the Bush administration. Obama’s advisors also have suggested that the highest-level officials who authorized the practices will be immune.
But the White House came under new pressure Monday to leave open the possibility of prosecutions.
Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, asked Obama in a letter that pledges of immunity “be held in reserve” until her committee had completed an investigation.
The panel is expected to review thousands of classified CIA cables and other materials describing the interrogations of self-proclaimed Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and others. Feinstein said the review would take eight months.
The released Justice Department memos show that the CIA waterboarded Mohammed 183 times in 2003. Another suspected senior Al Qaeda operative known as Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded 83 times that same year.
The numbers are far higher than any previously reported, raising questions about the effectiveness of the method.
But Cheney maintained that the techniques were crucial to national security. In a FOX News interview, he said: “I know specifically of reports that I read, that I saw, that lay out what we learned through the interrogation process and what the consequences were for the country.”
Obama acknowledged the widespread criticism, but the White House maintains that much of what was disclosed had been known and written about.
Greg Miller in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.