By Joby Warrick and Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, February 6, 2009
Leon Panetta, President Obama's surprise choice to be CIA director, yesterday promised a "new chapter" for the embattled spy agency, telling a Senate panel he would banish controversial interrogation policies while demanding greater candor and accountability with Congress and the American public.
The former Clinton White House chief of staff flatly denounced as "torture" the CIA's previous use of waterboarding and said he would not allow secret prisons or the forced transfer of suspected terrorists to countries that condone torture. But Panetta also pledged an aggressive fight against al-Qaeda and said he would oppose prosecutions for CIA officers who were only following orders when they participated in harsh interrogations.
"We need a strong CIA that keeps us safe and upholds our values," he told the Senate intelligence committee during a two-hour confirmation hearing.
Panetta, a former eight-term congressman who is expected to easily win confirmation, used the hearing to signal his intention to improve the CIA's often stormy relations with its congressional overseers.
He suggested the Bush administration had erred by fostering a culture of excessive secrecy, often limiting sensitive intelligence briefings to only eight senior members of Congress. Lawmakers have frequently accused the CIA of withholding information or giving misleading accounts, and Panetta said such practices would end in the Obama administration.
"Keeping this committee 'fully and currently' informed is not optional. It is the law," he said.
Panetta also sought to reassure the CIA's estimated 20,000 employees, describing the agency's performance as "heroic" during a time of unprecedented strain. Since 2001, the CIA "has been on an operational tempo unlike any in its history," he noted.
He praised the agency's outgoing director, Michael V. Hayden, and confirmed that the CIA's highly regarded deputy director, Stephen R. Kappes, would remain on the job and would be his "full partner."
But the largely positive hearing took a more partisan tone when Panetta was grilled about his views on dealing with captured terrorism suspects.
Panetta said he would oppose "extraordinary rendition," the forced transfer of detainees to another country, in cases in which the suspects might be tortured. But he said he would not rule out the possibility that terrorism suspects could be temporarily detained by the CIA for questioning and then sent to another country with legal jurisdiction to prosecute.
The comments drew a challenge from the committee's ranking Republican, Sen. Christopher S. Bond (Mo.), who disputed the suggestion that the CIA had condoned torture of detainees abroad and noted that the Clinton administration had ordered dozens of renditions.
Bond also pressed Panetta to explain where the CIA would put captured al-Qaeda terrorists with the CIA's secret prisons shuttered and the military detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to be closed.
Panetta acknowledged that some issues have yet to be resolved, including the fate of captured al-Qaeda operatives who cannot be tried in court but are too dangerous to be set free.
"There's going to be a group of prisoners that, very frankly, are going to have to be held in detainment for a long time," he said.