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Would-be CIA chief Panetta denounces waterboarding as torture

Obama's nominee takes a strong stand against the agency's counter-terrorism methods, including rendition of suspects, in a confirmation hearing marked by pointed exchanges over Bush policies.

February 06, 2009|Greg Miller

WASHINGTON — Leon E. Panetta, President Obama's pick to lead the CIA, testified Thursday that he believes the harsh interrogation technique known as waterboarding is torture, and he vowed to end an era in which the CIA's conduct drew controversy in the United States and condemnation around the world.

"I believe that waterboarding is torture and it's wrong," Panetta said during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee. Asked whether the president could authorize the agency to resume using such harsh methods, even in the midst of a crisis, Panetta replied: "Nobody is above the law."

Panetta's comments were the most forceful denunciation to date of the CIA's methods by a member of Obama's intelligence team.

The hearing was marked by pointed exchanges over Bush administration counter-terrorism policies.

At one point, Panetta took a verbal shot at former Vice President Dick Cheney, who suggested in an interview this week that Obama's decisions to close the Guantanamo Bay detention camp and to ban harsh interrogation methods risked the nation's security.

"I was disappointed by those comments," Panetta said. "The implication is that somehow this country is more vulnerable to attack because the president of this country wants to abide by the law and the Constitution."

Panetta, a former California congressman and chief of staff to President Clinton, is expected to be confirmed as soon as next week to take over an agency that is at a significant crossroads.

The CIA remains under intense pressure to locate Osama bin Laden and unravel the Al Qaeda terrorist network, all while staying abreast of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

At the same time, Panetta is expected to carry out Obama's agenda of intelligence reform, which includes closing the agency's secret prisons and ending the use of coercive interrogation methods.

If confirmed, Panetta would become the first senior CIA official on record acknowledging that the agency engaged in torture and other potentially illegal behavior in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.

In addition to his comments on waterboarding, Panetta said he believes the agency intentionally transferred prisoners to other countries to be tortured for information. "I suspect that has been the case -- that we have rendered individuals to other countries knowing that they would use certain techniques," Panetta said.

His assertion touched off a heated exchange with GOP lawmakers over the issue of rendition -- the practice of using the CIA to secretly abduct prisoners and transfer them to countries that cooperate with the United States.

Sen. Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.), the ranking Republican on the panel, noted that the Clinton administration had used the CIA to transfer prisoners to countries where they were subsequently executed. "Does that qualify as torture?" Bond asked.

"I think that is an appropriate use of rendition," as long as prisoners were turned over to the court systems of other nations, Panetta responded.

Panetta acknowledged that he was relying on news accounts and had no firsthand knowledge that prisoners had been tortured after being transferred by the CIA.

Dennis C. Blair, recently confirmed as director of national intelligence, had declined to use the word "torture" when asked about waterboarding, a method in which a prisoner is strapped to a board and doused with water to simulate drowning.

Panetta, like Blair, testified that he opposes prosecution of CIA officers who were involved in interrogation or detention operations because they were acting on the orders of the Bush administration and the legal advice of the Justice Department at the time.

Panetta said the pursuit of Al Qaeda remains the CIA's top priority. But he said the greatest challenge facing the agency is identifying other threats that are not getting adequate intelligence attention.

In particular, he cited the spreading economic crisis and "the consequences of that in terms of stability in the world. The big challenge right now is to figure out where those gaps are."

Even while pledging a clean break with Bush policies, Panetta indicated that the CIA still has significant latitude in counter-terrorism operations.

"If we capture a high-value prisoner, I believe we have the right to hold that individual temporarily to be able to debrief that individual and make sure that individual is properly incarcerated," he said.

If Bin Laden were captured, Panetta said, "we would find a place to hold him. . . . We would debrief him and incarcerate him, probably in a military prison."

As CIA director, Panetta also would oversee an ongoing campaign of deadly strikes in the border region of Pakistan by CIA drones armed with Hellfire missiles.

Panetta also said the CIA had mishandled a case in which its station chief in Algeria was accused last year of drugging and raping two Algerian women. The matter has been referred to the Justice Department, and the Algiers officer was recalled last fall. Lawmakers said they were angered that they were not notified of the case until it surfaced in the news last week.

Panetta said that the agency should have disclosed the matter to Congress immediately, and that the CIA officer "should have been terminated" over such serious allegations.

Panetta's confirmation hearing is scheduled to be completed today. His nomination is expected to win broad approval, despite early opposition from some key senators who criticized his lack of experience in intelligence matters.

Panetta noted during the hearing that the CIA's No. 2 executive, veteran case officer Stephen Kappes, has agreed to remain in that position.

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greg.miller@tribune.com

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