President Obama said Sunday he will not intervene to halt a Justice Department investigation into harsh tactics used by Central Intelligence Agency agents when questioning terror suspects.
When asked about a letter that seven former CIA directors sent Mr. Obama last week, calling on him to end the probe, the president said he would not.
“I respect all seven of them. I have absolute respect and have reliance upon a robust CIA,” Mr. Obama said on CNNs “State of the Union.” “I’ve also said nobody’s above the law. I don’t want to start getting into the business of squelching investigations.”
In his wide-ranging interviews on five different Sunday-morning talk shows, the president also said he is resisting pressure to announce a decision on troop deployments to Afghanistan.
Mr. Obama said he has not finished assessing the conditions there but wants to make sure that more troops will help with the war’s ultimate goal: to isolate and destroy al Qaeda.
“There is a natural inclination to say, ‘If I get more, then I can do more,’” Mr. Obama said on CNN. “But right now, the question is — the first question is, are we doing the right thing? Are we pursuing the right strategy?”
Last week, as members of Congress began to ratchet up pressure on Mr. Obama to declare whether he plans to send more American troops into Afghanistan, the White House took steps to slow down the decision-making process.
The administration dispatched senior officials to Capitol Hill to outline what it described as a novel and bluntly honest program to measure progress in the effort to deprive al Qaeda of a base of operations in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the ungoverned areas along the border between those two nations. That evaluation process, officials said, will come before the administration makes firm decisions about whether more troops are needed.
On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Mr. Obama said he wanted that review to come first and was not interest in continuing the war just to “save face.”
“I have to exercise skepticism any time I send a single young man or woman into harm’s way, because I’m the one that has to answer to their parents if they don’t come home,” the president said.
“We are going to see how this is fitting our core goals,” he said, which he explained as dismantling, disrupting and destroying al Qaeda. “That’s our goal, and I want to stay focused on that.”
While the focus of the president’s discussions remained mostly centered on the domestic debate over health care, he also touched on a number of other international matters. Asked what he learned from former President Clinton upon his recent return from North Korea, Mr. Obama said the former president told him that Kim Jong-il was in better condition than expected.
“President Clinton’s assessment was that he’s pretty healthy and in control,” Mr. Obama said of the reclusive North Korean leader. “There’s no doubt that this is somebody that I think for a while people thought was slipping away. He’s reasserting himself. He was more concerned about succession when he was sick. Maybe less so now.”
Asked why he didn’t attempt to extract anything from Russia in exchange for the decision not to locate missile defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic, Mr. Obama said the decision was not about Russia.
“My task here was not to negotiate with the Russians,” Mr. Obama told CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “The Russians don’t make determinations about what our defense posture is.”
In the midst of the various foreign policy concerns, though, the president made clear he is not going to intervene to try and diffuse rising tensions inside the CIA that began when Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said last month he was appointing an independent counsel to investigate possible incidents of prisoner abuse.
The seven former CIA directors — Michael Hayden, Porter Goss, George Tenet, John Deutch, James Woolsey, William Webster and James Schlesinger — said they had presumed the incidents of alleged abuse already had been reviewed by the Justice Department under the Bush administration.
“If criminal investigations closed by career prosecutors during one administration can so easily be reopened at the direction of political appointees in the next, declinations of prosecution will be rendered meaningless,” the former directors wrote.
They urged Mr. Obama to reverse Mr. Holder’s Aug. 24 decision to reopen the investigation.
Mr. Obama said Sunday he would does not want a “witch hunt.”
“I trust career prosecutors to be judicious. I’ve made clear both publicly and privately that I don’t want witch hunts,” he said. “But the law is the law.”
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