WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Monday defended before his most skeptical audience his decision to release Bush-era memos outlining interrogation techniques, telling CIA employees it will make the country more safe, not less. "I know that the last few days have been difficult," Obama said during brief remarks in the lobby of CIA headquarters at Langley, Va. He also met privately with senior CIA officials.
The Obama administration released on Thursday a series of key legal opinions that amount to the government's fullest accounting yet of the harshest techniques authorized under President George W. Bush and used to question suspected terrorists in the early stages of the anti-terror war. Obama has said he will not seek charges against CIA officers who carried out interrogations that many critics contend amounted to torture.
Michael Hayden, who led the CIA under Bush, said the public release of the memos will make it harder to get useful information from suspected terrorists being detained by the United States. Republican lawmakers also have criticized the move, saying it undermined national security.
Obama acknowledged that he heard "understandable anxiety and concern" from senior officials at the spy agency.
"I understand that it's hard when you are asked to protect the American people against people who have no scruples, and would willingly and gladly kill innocents," the president said.
"Al-Qaida's not constrained by a constitution. Many of our adversaries are not constrained by a belief in freedom of speech or representation in court or rule of law. But I'm sure that sometimes it seems as if that means we're operating with one hand tied behind our back, or that those who would argue for a higher standard are naive," he said.
But he said upholding U.S. values and ideals in the face of such an enemy is "what makes the United States special and what makes you special."
"So yes, you've got a harder job and so do I," Obama said. "Over the long term, that is why I believe we will defeat our enemies, because we're on the better side of history. So don't be discouraged by what's happened in the last few weeks. Don't be discouraged that we have to acknowledge potentially we've made some mistakes. That's how we learn."
Obama said he revoked any authority for the kind of techniques outlined in the memos because it makes the country more secure.
"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," he said.