Obama reaffirms support for CIA

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.

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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 visit 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 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.

“I want you to know how much the American people appreciate your service,” Obama said.

Obama\’s 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.

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Rudd hints at third stimulus package

A day after saying Australia would inevitably slip into recession, the prime minister has warned that unemployment will rise but said next month\’s budget would increase stimulus for the economy.

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But Kevin Rudd\’s press conference ended minutes before he could be quizzed on Reserve Bank governor Glenn Stevens\’ declaration that Australia was now in recession.

Mr Stevens today went further than the prime minister, saying Australia was now in recession.

“Whether or not the next GDP statistic, due in early June, shows another decline, I think the reasonable person, looking at all the information available now, would come to the conclusion that the Australian economy, too, is in recession,” Mr Stevens told a lunch in Adelaide.

Mr Rudd is in Western Australia hosting a jobs forum in the state, which has seen its powerhouse economy slow dramatically as the global financial crisis bites.

Mr Rudd said it was necessary to act locally, nationally and globally to reduce the impact of the global recession on Australia.

“The truth is this – the global economic recession makes it inevitable that we\’ll have a recession in Australia which means that, as we frame the budget, we\’re going to have to make even stronger our economic stimulus strategy because unemployment will rise even further,” Mr Rudd told reporters in Perth.

“As prime minister of Australia, I can\’t wish this global economic recession away.”

Mr Rudd said the federal government working with local communities could make a huge difference to the impact of the global recession on Australia.

“If we don\’t act together, then the impact of this recession will be greater than need be the case,” Mr Rudd said. Mr Rudd\’s press conference ended minutes before Mr Stevens\’ declaration.

Yesterday, Mr Rudd finally conceded the economy will be dragged into a recession for the first time since the early 1990s. Previously, he and Treasurer Wayne Swan had avoided using the “R” word.

Mr Rudd rejected Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull\’s claims he was shifting the focus from border protection issues to the global recession.

He said it was quite clear from the economic data from China and a range of other countries that a recession was inevitable in Australia.

“Australia is not an island, Australia is directly impacted by global economic factors in the first quarter of 2009,” Mr Rudd said.

“Most of the economic data coming out of those economies which directly affect Australia were negative, therefore, as night follows day, it affects Australia,” he said.

“Therefore, the global economic recession is making it inevitable there will be a recession (in) Australia.”

Mr Rudd said his comments were made in anticipation of a report by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

He said the federal government had maintained a consistent strategy of economic stimulus through payments since the end of 2008 and its focus would be on job creation through infrastructure projects including the national broadband network.

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Inter-Korean talks delayed by disagreement

The South\’s team crossed the heavily fortified border at around 8:35am for the scheduled talks at the nearby Kaesong joint industrial complex.

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But as of 2:00 pm (0500 GMT) initial contacts had failed to produce agreement on which building to use for the talks or what to discuss, according to sources quoted by Yonhap news agency.

“Both sides exchanged opinions during the morning about how to arrange this contact, and liaison officers will meet again in the afternoon,” said Kim Ho-Nyoun, spokesman for Seoul\’s unification ministry which handles cross-border relations.

Analysts had predicted little or no agreement.

The meeting at Kaesong, the last major co-operation project between the two sides, comes amid icy cross-border relations and threats from Pyongyang\’s military.

“The Lee group of traitors should never forget that Seoul is just 50 kilometres (30 miles) away” from the border, the North\’s military spokesman said Saturday, suggesting the city is vulnerable to attack.

The North is furious with South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak, who has abandoned a policy of providing almost unconditional aid to the communist state.

Regional tensions are also rising after the North\’s purported satellite launch on April 5, widely seen overseas as a disguised missile test.

The North, angry at UN censure of the launch, has announced it is quitting nuclear disarmament talks and restarting its atomic weapons programme.

It has expelled US and UN nuclear inspectors. Following the launch South Korea announced it would push ahead with plans to join a US-led initiative against shipments of weapons of mass destruction.

The North says any move by its neighbour to join the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) would be seen as a declaration of war. In another complication, the North has been holding a South Korean worker at Kaesong for more than three weeks.

It accuses him of criticising its communist regime and trying to persuade a local woman worker to defect.

Analysts believe the North will try to force the South to choose between PSI and the future of Kaesong, using the detainee as a bargaining chip.

Cho Bong-Hyun, an analyst with South Korean bank IBK, said the North will likely charge the detainee to raise tension and may even demand that all South Korean workers quit the joint venture.

“Chances are they will be saying, \’These are the results of our investigation and the crime is so grave he has to be tried here,\'” Cho told Yonhap, citing sources involved in Kaesong.

“There could be a further warning, such as ordering all South Korean workers to leave the complex unless Seoul makes a big compromise.”

The unification ministry said Seoul would respond “strongly” to any attempt to charge the detainee with a crime. Spokeswoman Lee Jong-Joo said the previously agreed procedure is for South Korean employees at Kaesong to be warned, fined or expelled for any infraction.

She stressed that PSI and the investigation into the detainee are separate issues. “These two issues cannot be and must not be linked.”

Opened in 2005, Kaesong is both a symbol of reconciliation and an attempt to combine the North\’s cheap but skilled labour with the South\’s capital and know-how. Some 38,300 North Koreans work at 101 South Korean firms, producing items such as garments, kitchenware and watches.

But operations have often been hit by political tensions. In December the North restricted border crossings and expelled hundreds of South Korean managers from the estate.

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Fiji regime employs NZ lawyer

New Zealand lawyer Christopher Pryde has rejected harsh criticisms of his decision to remain Solicitor-General of Fiji after its military regime ruled that it cannot be challenged in court.

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The New Zealand Law Society had advised Pryde that lawyers should not accept office with an unlawful regime.

Pryde explained on radio that he had made his choice to ensure the country could restore the rule of law.

However Fiji\’s military regime had reportedly begun shredding documents that incriminate it, ruling that it cannot be legally challenged over its 2006 coup.

A top United Nations official also declared Fiji’s disbandment of its constitution a ‘brazen action’ which increased the potential for instability and violence.

Pryde also rejected criticism from the Fiji Law Society, saying it has been successively compromised over the last two years and was a shadow of its former self.

Eight magistrates and a chief magistrate were sworn in by President Ratu Josefa Iloilo on Monday and the Fiji Law Society said it had been told court documents concerning the interim government dating back to 2006 had been destroyed.

Blog websites have reported that the troubled country\’s newly-appointed chief registrar, Major Ana Rokomokoti, has been destroying court documents related to the coup and any other negative claims.

The actions are part of the latest power grab by military leader Frank Bainimarama, who has ruled the country by virtual dictatorship since overthrowing a democratic government in December 2006.

His government was recently handed more power when the constitution was abolished, elections delayed, media censored, judiciary sacked and top officials replaced with those suiting Bainimarama\’s new order.

Fiji Law Society president Dorsami Naidu said the actions were a vain attempt to protect an illegal government.

“I have heard they have shredded all paperwork and files on actions pending against the military regime,” Naidu said.

“They\’re wrecking it to try to get away with what they\’ve done.”

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State of emergency extended by new protest

A fresh rally planned by anti-government protesters will prolong a state of emergency in Thailand\’s capital Bangkok and surrounding areas, a government minister said.

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Supporters of ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra have announced they will regroup Saturday outside the emergency zone after rallies in Bangkok ended last week following street battles between demonstrators and armed soldiers.

But Satit Wonghnongtaey, the minister attached to the prime minister\’s office, said the protests in Samut Sakhon province, 36 kilometres (22 miles) outside Bangkok would worsen the kingdom\’s political chaos.

Rally to ‘worsen the crisis’

“The government is ready to deal with any chaos but the rally will affect the government\’s decision when to lift the state of emergency,” Satit told reporters.

“This is bad news for our country because it will worsen the crisis. They (Thaksin\’s supporters) should rely on parliament as the government is implementing charter amendments as demanded by the protesters,” he said.

‘Red shirts’ ready for more

On Monday Jakrapob Penkair, a senior member of the so-called “Red Shirt” protest movement loyal to fugitive Thaksin, told AFP from exile that the group would continue their campaign against Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

“We have developed some strategies,” Jakrapob told AFP in a telephone call diverted by an assistant to avoid detection.

The Red Shirts shut down an Asian summit in the beach resort of Pattaya on

April 11 and then clashed with troops in Bangkok on Monday. Two people were killed and 123 injured in the unrest in the capital.

The Red Shirts want Abhisit to quit and call elections, saying that he came to power unfairly in December after a court toppled Thaksin\’s allies from power.

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