WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama and his CIA chief buried differences on Monday over the release of classified documents on waterboarding, even as former Vice President Dick Cheney kept the debate alive.
Obama visited CIA headquarters and told agency employees that a fight against al Qaeda and other challenges, and foreign policy changes he is pursuing, make their expertise vital. He pledged his full support.
“We live in dangerous times. I am going to need you more than ever,” Obama said. He counseled the employees not to be discouraged by public discussion of “mistakes.”
Shortly Obama’s visit, Cheney said he had asked the CIA to release documents showing the “success” of the widely condemned harsh-interrogation program launched by former President George W. Bush after the September 11 attacks.
The visit represented a swift bid by Obama to shore up CIA morale after he released last week classified Bush-era legal memos detailing the interrogation program.
“I know that the last few days have been difficult,” he said. His arrival, however, was met by enthusiastic cheers from the audience of about 1,000 CIA staff.
CIA Director Leon Panetta told Obama he had the CIA’s support and loyalty.
The interrogation program included “waterboarding,” a form of simulated drowning widely considered torture. It came to symbolize U.S. excesses in fighting terrorism after the September 11 attacks.
One memo said waterboarding had been used a total of 266 times on two of the three al Qaeda suspects the CIA acknowledges were waterboarded.
Obama said the memos were released because had become the subject of a burdensome court fight and their covert nature had already been compromised.
Panetta vowed to respect a ban on harsh interrogations that Obama issued in January. He had opposed releasing the memos, joining former CIA directors concerned that their release could expose agents to retribution.
Cheney said in a “Fox News” interview with Sean Hannity that he found it disturbing that Obama did not also release memos that Cheney said documented the effectiveness of the interrogations -- a point contested by some experts.
The CIA declined to comment on Cheney’s remarks.
Republican Kit Bond, vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the release of the memos was a signal to CIA employees that “our government is not going to stand behind you.”
Obama pledged to employees Monday that he would be “vigorous” in protecting them.
Obama also drew anger from human rights groups, by saying last week he would not prosecute CIA interrogators who had relied on the Bush-era legal guidelines.
The Democratic head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Dianne Feinstein, urged him to withhold judgment on prosecutions, pending a closed-door review by her committee of the interrogation program.
Obama also acknowledged that CIA senior leaders in recent conversations had demonstrated “anxiety and concern” over his limits on interrogation techniques.
Editing by Eric Walsh