President Barack Obama heaped praise on the CIA, vowing his "full support" and telling employees not to be discouraged by his release of stunning details on the agency’s harsh terror interrogations.
The president reassured the embattled spies at their Virginia headquarters amid a heated controversy over his release of secret memos detailing Bush-era interrogations of terror suspects denounced as torture by critics.
If there were hard feelings, they weren’t on public display at the Central Intelligence Agency.
Hundreds of agency employees packed the lobby of the original headquarters building to hear Obama and exploded in cheers and applause when he strode in with CIA director Leon Panetta.
"Don’t be discouraged by what’s happened the last few weeks. Don’t be discouraged that we have to acknowledge potentially we have made some mistakes — that’s how we learn," Obama said.
"But the fact that we are willing to acknowledge them and then move forward, that is precisely why I am proud to be president of the United States and that’s why you should be proud to be members of the CIA."
Obama’s first visit to the agency’s headquarters coincided with fresh revelations about the repeated use of waterboarding, or near-drowning, on up to 266 occasions by CIA interrogators against two top Al-Qaeda terror suspects.
Last week, the president released a series of Justice Department memos detailing harsh techniques, including waterboarding, sleep deprivation and even a proposal to use insects to frighten a detainee, endorsed by the previous administration of George W. Bush.
The move, which came in response to a court order, exposed Obama to fierce attacks from across the political spectrum.
Former Bush administration officials warned he had tied the hands of the agency for the future, damaged individual agents who carried out the questioning or offered a propaganda tool to US enemies.
Human rights groups were furious that Obama simultaneously ruled out prosecutions of CIA operatives who carried out interrogations viewed as torture, by reasoning that they were acting on orders to defend their country.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, on Monday asked Obama to withhold judgment on possible prosecutions until her committee has completed a review of the secret program in about six to eight months time.
Obama, however, vowed "my full support" for the CIA, calling it "an indispensable tool, the tip of the spear, in America’s intelligence mission and our national security.
"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 said.
Before his remarks, Obama met privately with 50 intelligence officers and agency leaders and acknowledged later that "people have expressed understandable anxiety and concern.
"I’m sure that sometimes it seems as if… we’re operating with one hand tied behind our back, or that those who would argue for a higher standard are naive. I understand that.
"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."
Obama said he acknowledged the difficulty of being "asked to protect the American people against people who have no scruples and would willingly and gladly kill innocents. Al-Qaeda is not constrained by a constitution."
Obama showered praise on the agency operatives who operate in the shadows and have played a new and more vital role since the September 11 attacks in 2001.
His euphoric reception was in sharp contrast with what is reported to have been an intense behind-the-scenes debate over whether to release the interrogation memos, which Panetta and other CIA officials argued against.
Former CIA chief Michael Hayden has warned that the release of the documents could still leave agents vulnerable to civil lawsuits or congressional probes targeting CIA operatives who relied on the Bush-era memos to carry out harsh interrogations.
"There will be more revelations. There will be more commissions. There will be more investigations," he told the TV program "Fox News Sunday."
Hayden also insisted that the harsh interrogation techniques had succeeded in combating Al-Qaeda and saving American lives, something he characterized as "an inconvenient truth."
Former vice president Dick Cheney told Fox News on Monday he had asked the CIA to declassify memos that showed the successes that resulted from the interrogations.