Under fire for releasing a series of Justice Department memos on harsh interrogations of terror suspects, President Obama made a morale-boosting stop this afternoon at the Central Intelligence Agency headquarters.
Obama told about 1,000 employees that he will protect classified intelligence information, but defended the release of the memos.
"I know that the last few days have been difficult," he said. "As I made clear, in releasing the OLC memos, as a consequence of a court case that was pending and to which it was very difficult for us to mount an effective legal defense, I acted primarily because of the exceptional circumstances that surrounded these memos, particularly the fact that so much of the information was public, had been publicly acknowledged.
"The covert nature of the information had been compromised," he added. "I have fought to protect the integrity of classified information in the past and I will do so in the future. And there is nothing more important than protecting the identity of CIA officers. So I need everybody to be clear. We will protect your identities and your security as you vigorously pursue your missions. I will be as vigorous in protecting you, as you are vigorous in protecting the American people."
He argued again that ending harsh interrogations -- what critics call torture -- will make America more safe, not less so.
"What makes the United States special and what makes you special is precisely the fact that we are willing to uphold our values and our ideals even when it's hard, not just when it's easy; even when we are afraid and under threat, not just when it's expedient to do so. That's what makes us different," the president said.
"So yes, you've got a harder job and so do I. And that's OK, because that's why we can take such extraordinary pride in being Americans. And 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."
UPDATE: Meanwhile, former Vice President Dick Cheney is joining other Bush administration officials criticizing the release of the memos, and is now calling for the declassification and release of memos that he says shows the information gleaned from the interrogations.
“One of the things that I find a little bit disturbing about this recent disclosure is they put out the legal memos, the memos that the CIA got from the Office of Legal Counsel, but they didn't put out the memos that showed the success of the effort. And there are reports that show specifically what we gained as a result of this activity. They have not been declassified,” Cheney says in an interview airing tonight on Fox News Channel’s "Hannity" show.
“I formally asked that they be declassified now. I haven't announced this up until now, I haven't talked about it, but 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,” according to excerpts released by Fox News.
“And I've now formally asked the CIA to take steps to declassify those memos so we can lay them out there and the American people have a chance to see what we obtained and what we learned and how good the intelligence was, as well as to see this debate over the legal opinions.”
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Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.