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.
Obama faces considerable pressure to take early and dramatic steps to shift course from the Bush administration on a range of legal issues involving terrorism -- shutting down the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, curbing the practice of rendering terror suspects to other countries outside normal channels, rewriting legal opinions on terror policy his advisers have condemned. Dawn E. Johnsen, Obama's choice to lead the Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel, has been a vocal critic of the office's output and the process by which it has reached conclusions, testifying before Congress that the Bush administration's approach to legal advice had been infected by political considerations.
Each of these terror issues present a series of minefields for the Obama administration, perhaps no more so than in the area of interrogation policy, which has been a major source of embarrassment for the Bush administration since revelations surfaced of the use of waterboarding (simulated drowning) and other harsh tactics on senior al-Qaeda operatives. In 2007, Bush signed an executive order that allowed the CIA to use interrogation tactics tougher than those allowed for the military, though he did not authorize some of the most controversial techniques, including waterboarding.
If Obama goes ahead with his plan to scrap the special CIA program, he could expose himself to criticism that he did not do all he could to prevent another terrorist attack. That is exactly the kind of criticism that President Bush himself was subjected to after the Sept. 11 attacks.
"The Bush White House was accused of paying insufficient attention to the threat posed by al-Qaeda before 9/11," said one senior administration official. "Will the new administration let the pendulum swing too far in the effort to purge the perceived excesses of the past? Will they have on blinders to the continuing threat?"
Some administration officials noted that outgoing CIA Director Michael V. Hayden is on the record saying that the special interrogation tactics have been effective. They point to a white paper put out by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence titled "Summary of the High Value Terrorist Detainee Program," which attributed the waterboarding of Zayn al-Abidin Muhammed Hussein, better known as Abu Zubaida, to getting the first information about Khalid Sheik Mohammed's role in 9/11 and intelligence that helped capture Ramzi Binalshibh, a prominent al-Qaeda operative.
"It is a very weighty decision to shut down a program entirely, one that intelligence professionals have said is a very valuable thing," said another administration official.
In finding his way on interrogation policy, Obama will have to be mindful of several other important constituencies, including Capitol Hill. Several prominent Democratic lawmakers, including new Senate intelligence committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), have publicly called for firm limits on interrogation methods, including a ban on the use of waterboarding, or simulated drowning. A bill introduced by Feinstein this week would require all American interrogators to adhere to the Army Field Manual, which prohibits an array of harsh interrogation tactics.
Even the Army Field Manual recognizes that drawing a bright line for interrogations is difficult. At one point it cautions, "Although no single comprehensive source defines impermissible coercion, certain acts are clearly prohibited."
Congress last March passed a bill similar to Feinstein's and Bush vetoed it. Thus, Obama's problem is not only whether to decide whether to prohibit the techniques via executive order, but also whether he is prepared to veto such a measure to preserve presidential prerogatives.
Obama actions will also be watched closely by the career officials at the CIA, who want to see how supportive the new president and his team will be. Former CIA officials note that all the agency's actions were authorized by Bush with legal opinions and concurrence by senior White House officials and Congress. "The Obama people can run against the Bush guys all they want, but they shouldn't run down the CIA," said one retired agency official.
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.