"That is the president's position, too," he added.
Panetta's message addressed the 2004 report by the CIA's inspector general that will be released today, along with two other papers about the agency's past detention and interrogation of terrorist suspects, as part of a number of Freedom of Information Act cases.
"The Agency sought and received multiple written assurances that its methods were lawful," the CIA director wrote. "The CIA has a strong record in terms of following legal guidance and informing the Department of Justice of potentially illegal conduct."
Panetta's defense of the agency comes amid news that the Justice Department's ethics office has recommended that Attorney General Eric Holder reopen and pursue several CIA prisoner-abuse cases. Reviewing the cases would reverse the course set by the Bush administration and expose CIA employees and agency contractors to criminal prosecution.
Panetta wrote that, "This is in many ways an old story," saying that many of the details of the agency's prior interrogation techniques are already public.
"The use of enhanced interrogation techniques, begun when our country was responding to the horrors of September 11th, ended in January," he wrote. "For the CIA now, the challenge is not the battles of yesterday, but those of today and tomorrow. It is there that we must work to enhance the safety of our country."
The director's message emphasized ways in which the agency took accountability for its past actions, such as commissioning the inspector general's review, reporting abuse allegations to the Justice Department and providing the complete, unredacted report to Congress.
Also on Monday, the Obama administration confirmed that it will set up a new, special terrorism-era interrogation unit to be supervised by the White House, called the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group. The unit will be led by an FBI official, with members from across agencies. It will rely solely on the Army Field Manual when interrogating prisoners.
The new unit does not mean the CIA is now out of the interrogation business, deputy White House press secretary Bill Burton told reporters today.
Panetta said in his message to the agency that he is not eager to enter the already-politicized debate regarding the utility of the agency's past interrogation efforts.
"But this much is clear," he wrote. "The CIA obtained intelligence from high-value detainees when inside information on al-Qa'ida was in short supply. Whether this was the only way to obtain that information will remain a legitimate area of dispute, with Americans holding a range of views on the methods used."