Panetta says he would end harsh CIA interrogation tactics
By Mary Anne Ostrom
Posted: 02/05/2009 06:01:41 PM PST
Vowing a clean break from the CIA's controversial recent past, Leon Panetta, President Barack Obama's surprise pick to lead the spy agency, promised Thursday to end controversial detainment and interrogation practices used during the Bush years and bluntly declared that "waterboarding is torture."
The former Monterey congressman's denouncement of the harsh interrogation tactic used on suspected terrorists came during his first day of Senate confirmation hearings, which are expected to conclude today.
Describing waterboarding as torture is the toughest language yet used by a would-be senior Obama administration intelligence official. Panetta promised a thorough review of Bush administration policies at the Central Intelligence Agency, and he vowed to share findings with congressional intelligence committee members.
Already Obama has issued executive orders to start the process of closing down the Guantánamo Bay detention center in Cuba and to assess what should happen to the remaining detainees. Panetta said he would not support prosecution of CIA agents who used harsh interrogation practices if they were following Bush administration guidance.
Asked about recent comments by Vice President Dick Cheney that Obama's executive orders put the nation at risk, Panetta said, "The implication is that somehow this country is more vulnerable to attack because the president of this country wants to abide by the law and the Constitution.
I think we are a stronger nation when we abide by the law and Constitution."
Asked what would happen to Osama bin Laden if he were captured, Panetta said, "We would debrief him and incarcerate him, probably in a military prison."
Among the biggest challenges facing the agency, he said, is the growing economic crisis and its repercussions on global stability. He said the CIA needs to fill intelligence gaps, focusing on Russia, China and Africa. "My biggest challenge now is to figure out where those gaps are," he said.
Since leaving Washington in 1997, after serving as President Bill Clinton's chief of staff, Panetta has spent most of his time running the Leon and Sylvia Panetta Institute for Public Policy, headquartered at California State University-Monterey Bay.
When the confirmation hearing resumes today, Republican senators are expected to ask Panetta about details of his income since leaving government. In a filing with the Office of Government Ethics, Panetta reported that last year he was paid for making speeches to troubled financial institutions Merrill Lynch and Wachovia. He reported making $1.2 million from his activities and investments last year and said he had assets worth nearly $4 million.
Obama's nominees are under increased scrutiny in the wake of discoveries that forced two nominees to withdraw after it was learned they had failed to pay taxes.
The White House has said that Panetta has no similar tax problems and did not have to pay any back taxes after being tapped by the White House to lead the CIA.