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Inquiry Into Interrogations Unlikely
Hayden said the most controversial parts of the CIA's counterterrorism program -- waterboarding and secret detentions, both of which have reportedly been halted -- were carried out at the time by CIA officers acting under orders, with explicit assurances by top Bush administration lawyers that their actions were legal.
The Bush administration has argued that the programs yielded valuable information about al-Qaeda operatives and plans. But Hayden argued that, regardless of how people view the program today, it would be a mistake for one administration to try to prosecute spies for carrying covert actions authorized by a different White House.
"I have no right to ask a guy to bet his kids' college education on who's going to win the next off-year election," Hayden said. "You can't do this to these people."
Once Obama is sworn in as president, the CIA will automatically follow the new administration's lead on how terrorism suspects would be treated, he said. But Hayden, wading into a long-simmering controversy over the limits of the CIA's detainee program, cautioned against forcing the agency to adopt the Defense Department's rule book for conducting interrogations. A narrow list of interrogation practices designed for battlefield interrogations are not sufficiently flexible for use in dealing with hardened international terrorists, he said.
Hayden said his nominated successor, Leon Panetta, would inherit a CIA on the "right trajectory": an agency that has learned from past mistakes, improved morale and transformed itself in key areas. He pointed to the agency's recent successes against al-Qaeda in Iraq and along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border as emblematic of the CIA's improved use of technology, informants and analysis. The agency has killed at least eight senior al-Qaeda leaders in airstrikes in Pakistan since July.
"The number of terrorists taken off the battlefield is a remarkable and telling achievement, and that has to be sustained," he said.
Hayden expressed confidence in his successor but declined to say specifically what advice he might offer him. If he were to leave a note in his desk for Panetta, the message would probably be similar to the one left for Hayden by his predecessor, Porter J. Goss.
That note, Hayden said, contained a single line: "Good luck."