Obama Under Pressure On Interrogation Policy

President-elect Barack Obama pledges to end all torture in interrogations, but some officials caution against leaving the CIA too little flexibility.
President-elect Barack Obama pledges to end all torture in interrogations, but some officials caution against leaving the CIA too little flexibility. (By Linda Davidson -- The Washington Post)
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By Michael Abramowitz, Joby Warrick and Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, January 10, 2009

President-elect Barack Obama introduced his nominees to head his national security team on Friday. But now Obama begins a perilous balancing act to fulfill his pledge to make a clean break with the detention and interrogation policies of the Bush administration while still effectively ensuring the nation's security.

Obama named retired Navy Adm. Dennis C. Blair director of national intelligence and former congressman and White House chief of staff Leon E. Panetta as his CIA director.

"Under my administration, the United States does not torture. We will abide by the Geneva Conventions. . . . We will uphold our highest values and ideals," Obama told reporters. "It is important for us to do that not only because that's who we are, but also, ultimately it will make us safer and will help in changing hearts and minds in our struggle against extremists."

At the same time Obama intends to curb counterterrorism practices he considers excessive or even illegal, he will also come under great pressure to leave the CIA the kind of flexibility its operatives have long considered necessary to heading off another Sept. 11-style attack, current and former national security officials said.

Many officials expect Obama to fulfill a pledge to eliminate the special rules for CIA interrogations of suspected terror suspects and require the agency's operatives to follow non-coercive military guidelines for questioning. Human rights groups are already calling on the president-elect to send a strong message to the world that U.S. policy on dealing with detainees has changed.

"With the stroke of a pen Obama could take a major step to restore America's moral authority and make clear that the United State no longer endorses torture, secret detention or abuse," Jennifer Daskal, senior counsel for Human Rights Watch, said yesterday. Her group has called on Obama to issue an executive order soon after taking office mandating a single U.S. standard for CIA and military interrogation that prohibits harsh tactics.

Agency officials have said they will do whatever the president orders -- but along with other senior Bush officials they have made little secret that they consider their interrogation program effective.

"Those were programs that have been absolutely essential to maintaining our capacity to interfere with and defeat all further attacks against the United States," Vice President Cheney said in an interview this week with CBS Radio. "If I had advice to give, it would be, before you start to implement your campaign rhetoric, you need to sit down and find out precisely what it is we did and how we did it, because it is going to be vital to keeping the nation safe and secure in the years ahead."

Obama did not refer to the interrogation controversies in introducing Blair and Panetta. Instead, he focused on the need for candid, unvarnished assessments, an apparent reference to allegations that intelligence was politicized in the run-up to the Iraq war.

"We've learned that to make pragmatic policy choices, we must insist on assessments grounded solely on the facts and not seek information to suit any ideological agenda," Obama said.

Obama went out of his way to defend Panetta, rebutting criticism from the Hill, which has receded in the last day or two, that the onetime White House budget director is not qualified for the job. Describing Panetta as "one of the finest public servants of our time," Obama said he would have his "complete trust and substantial clout" at the CIA, with the full authority of the White House behind him. "He has handled intelligence daily, at the very highest levels, and time and again he has demonstrated sound judgment, grace under fire and complete integrity," Obama said.

Obama also announced John Brennan, who had initially been considered for the CIA post, as homeland security adviser, a post that may be folded into the National Security Council after Obama takes office. Brennan will also have the title of deputy national security adviser. Mike McConnell, the current DNI, will retain an advisory position, Obama said, while Michael E. Leiter will keep his job as head of the National Counterterrorism Center.

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