Can Obama Do Enough to Reassure the CIA?

Although President Obama received a warm welcome—including extended cheers—in a meeting Monday with employees at CIA headquarters, current and former intelligence officials say that some of the agency's undercover operatives remain anxious and angry about Obama's recent decision to declassify and release Justice Department documents detailing "enhanced" interrogation techniques the agency used on terrorist suspects during the Bush Administration.

Those concerns within the agency's hyper-secret National Clandestine Service were made public by a leading Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee—and sometime Bush Administration defender—Sen. Kit Bond. In a written statement, Bond claimed that Obama's pep-talk to the CIA workforce "can't erase the dangerous message he sent last week—which is that the CIA better change their mission to "CYA," because our government is not going to stand behind you."

Those concerns were echoed by a retired undercover operative who still works under contract for the agency (and asked to remain anonymous when discussing internal agency politics). Clandestine Service officers are both demoralized and angry at Obama's decisions to release the memos and ban future agency use of aggressive interrogation tactics, the former operative said. "It embarrasses our families. You just can't keep hitting us. Sooner or later we're going to stop going out and working." The official added that "a lot of offense was taken" among some Clandestine Service veterans when Obama declared that the interrogation practices the agency employed under Bush were wrong, even though the new Administration would not prosecute operatives for carrying them out.

A current intelligence official close to the interrogation controversy also said that promises that Obama made to defend and pay the legal bills of any agency operatives involved in the interrogation controversy who might face future investigations or litigation by Congress, private parties or foreign government may not entirely protect agency officials from suffering future career or personal setbacks due to the interrogation controversy. The official noted that even if the U.S. government paid legal expenses, CIA officers facing possible prosecution by foreign governments—a Spanish judge has already announced his own investigation into agency practices—might still find themselves facing the kind of legal charges or convictions overseas which could make it impossible for them to work in certain countries because they faced arrest. As a result, their careers in espionage could be ruined. "You can indemnify all you want," said the official, but the President in effect "handed foreign government legal materials which will enable them" to open investigations of agency personnel.

As if to validate some of these concerns, Sen Dianne Feinstein, the Democrat who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, wrote a letter to Obama today urging him to stop making public promises not to launch criminal prosecutions related to the agency's enhanced interrogation program. Feinstein said in the letter that she would "respectfully request that comments regarding holding individuals accountable for detention and interrogation related activities be held in reserve until the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence is able to complete its review of the conditions and interrogations of certain high value detainees." The committee investigation is expected to take six months to a year.

In the weeks before Obama decided to release the memos, current and former agency officials, including former CIA director Michael Hayden and John Brennan, a former CIA officer who now is the top White House counter-terrorism expert, reportedly lobbied aggressively to persuade Obama not to release the Justice Department documents, or to at least censor them heavily before they were made public. An Administration faction led by Attorney General Eric Holder and White House counsel Greg Craig argued that the memos should be released to signal a clear breach with Bush policies. The fact that the memos were released with minimal redactions suggests Craig and Holder won that debate.

Despite all the maneuvering, Bob Baer, a storied former CIA Middle East operative whose exploits inspired the George Clooney film "Syriana" said few people in the Clandestine Service should have been surprised that the agency's use of interrogation methods which human rights and legal experts have described as "torture" would eventually come back to haunt the agency. "They knew that the moment the decision was made [to use the controversial interrogation methods]," Baer told Newsweek. Many agency case officers do understand that Obama had "no choice" but to release the documents because of political pressure. Nonetheless, says Baer, some officials—and maybe the whole agency—face demoralization by the controversy.

Hence Obama's visit to Langley. During his appearance, Obama assured agency employees that "I will be as vigorous in protecting you as you are vigorous in protecting the American people." That was clearly the message of the day. Paul Gimigliano, a CIA spokesman, made the same point to Newsweek: "Early on, Director Panetta made very clear his view that those who followed legal guidance from the Department of Justice should not be punished. That is now the official position of the administration as a whole. People here are focused, as always, on getting the job done in accord with the law. That's what counts most of all."