4957867President Obama this afternoon spoke to about 1,000 CIA employees, who greeted him with enthusiastic applause despite concerns from some in the agency about his decision to release memos outlining past U.S. treatment of terror suspects.
"I know that the last few days have been difficult," he said. "As I made clear in releasing the OLC memos…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."
"I have fought to protect the integrity of classified information in the past and I will do so in the future," the president added. "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."
The president thanked the employees for their service, noting that "what makes it tougher is, when you succeed, as you so often do, that success usually has to stay secret." He called the CIA "an indispensable tool, the tip of the spear, in America's intelligence mission and our national security."
The president went on to say he understands 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."
Al Qaeda, the president noted, is not constrained by such standards, which, he said, make it so that "sometimes it seems as if…we're operating with one hand tied behind our back." He argued that following ethical guidelines is nonetheless worthwhile, even if some see it as naïve.
"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," he said.
"So yes, you've got a harder job and so do I," said the president. "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."