By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 23, 2009
Retired Adm. Dennis C. Blair, President Obama's nominee to lead the U.S. intelligence community, told Congress yesterday that torture "is not moral, legal or effective" and that "there will not be any waterboarding on my watch."
Blair, nominated to be director of national intelligence, used his confirmation hearing to outline a new approach to counterterrorism and told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that he would not support "any surveillance activities that circumvent" the law.
"I believe we are in a new era in the relationship between the two branches of government," Blair told committee members, who over the past eight years were frequently denied information by the White House. Blair, the former head of U.S. Pacific Command who spent two years in the 1990s as an associate CIA director for military support, appeared headed for unanimous approval.
Blair hesitated to directly challenge as illegal the Bush administration's approach to interrogations and surveillance. And he declined to respond directly to a question from Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) on whether waterboarding is torture. Instead, Blair reiterated his vow: "There will be no waterboarding on my watch. There will be no torture on my watch."
Blair still refused to respond when Levin pointed out that Obama's nominee for attorney general, Eric H. Holder Jr., had called waterboarding torture.
Blair said that, if confirmed, he would be leading the same intelligence officers who, in using the technique of waterboarding, had been following presidential orders under legal authorities supplied by the attorney general.
"They had doubts . . . originally, so they asked, and they asked again," Blair said. "There were very dedicated officers in intelligence service who thought they were carrying out activities that were authorized at the highest levels. I don't intend to reopen those cases of those officers who acted within their duty."
He said he would "objectively" investigate previous reports that the waterboarding in 2002 and 2003 of three key al-Qaeda captives had resulted in information that had saved lives.
Blair took an unusual stance for a national security official on the question of secrecy, saying, "There is a great deal of overclassification, some of it . . . done for the wrong reasons."
He blamed that on a system that penalizes officers "if you get something wrong and don't classify it. . . . There is no incentive not to do that."
At the same time, Blair promised to take a tougher stand on government employees who leak classified intelligence information. Blair said he wanted to build in "procedural safeguards" and to "let everybody who works for the government know that if you are going to pass classified information to a reporter or someone, there will be a trace of it."
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairman of the intelligence committee, cited a study showing that 27 percent of the 100,000-plus people in the intelligence community are contractors who each cost "$80,000 more than a government employee" per year. She also noted that contractors performed missions that include interrogating CIA detainees.
Blair said it would be his "strong preference . . . that interrogators in the intelligence world be a professional cadre of the best interrogators" and that contractors be hired for interrogations only when they were needed to translate a particular dialect.
Blair said that contracting out intelligence was "a serious problem."