Leon Panetta, the nominee for Central Intelligence Agency director, said that Obama would not authorize "extraordinary rendition." (Photo: Reuters)
Washington - CIA Director nominee Leon Panetta assured senators Thursday that the Obama administration will not send prisoners to countries for torture or other treatment that violates U.S. values as he contended had occurred during the Bush presidency.
Panetta, testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee, later acknowledged that he does not know specifically what happened in the secret program allowing so-called "extraordinary rendition." CIA Director Michael Hayden has said that the Bush administration moved secret prisoners between countries for interrogation and incarceration, separate from the judicial system, fewer than 100 times.
Panetta said that President Barack Obama forbids what Panetta called "that kind of extraordinary rendition - when we send someone for the purpose of torture or actions by another country that violate our human values."
"What happened I can't tell you specifically," he said later, "but clearly steps were taken that prompted this president to say those things ought not to happen again."
Rendition has been used by U.S. presidents for several decades; Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., said the Clinton administration used it 80 times. However, Panetta said the difference is whether the prisoner is transferred to another government for prosecution in its judicial system or for secret interrogations that may lead to torture.
Panetta said renditions that send individuals to other countries to face prosecution are appropriate.
"Having said that, if we capture a high-value prisoner, I believe we have the right to hold that individual temporarily, to debrief that individual and to make sure that individual is properly incarcerated so we can maintain control over that individual," he said.
While the Obama administration is turning its back on some Bush administration practices, Panetta said there is no intention to hold CIA officers responsible for the policies they were told to carry out. CIA interrogators who used waterboarding or other harsh techniques against prisoners with the permission of the White House should not be prosecuted, he said.
The Bush White House approved CIA waterboarding, a form of simulated drowning, for three prisoners in 2002 and 2003. The CIA banned the practice internally in 2006. Obama has prohibited harsh interrogation techniques going forward.
But Panetta said if interrogators went beyond the methods they were told were legal, they should be investigated.
"We can protect this country, we can get the information we need, we can provide for the security of the American people and we can abide by the law. I'm absolutely convinced that we can do that," he said.
Panetta said he would come to the job with a list of questions he wants the CIA to be able to answer, including the location of Osama bin Laden and when and where al-Qaida will next try to attack the U.S. He also said he wants to increase intelligence gathering and analyses on potential problems with Russia, China, Africa and Latin America, as well as the effects of the unfolding economic crisis.
"Our first responsibility is to prevent surprise," he said.
The former White House chief of staff under President Clinton and ex-congressman from California has extensive experience in government but little in intelligence gathering or analysis. He told the committee that he has asked former CIA chiefs_ notably former President George H.W. Bush - how to compensate for that shortcoming.
"They all told me to listen carefully to the professionals at the agency but also to stay closely engaged with Congress," Panetta said. "I am a creature of Congress."
Panetta acknowledged that he has little professional intelligence experience. But, he added: "I know Washington. I know how it works. I think I also know why it fails to work."
For intelligence expertise, he said, he would retain the top four officials now at the CIA, including Deputy Director Steven Kappes. He promised not to meddle in day-to-day intelligence operations.
"I anticipate focusing primarily on ensuring policy and procedure is handled correctly, rather than intervening personally in the details of operational planning or the production of individual pieces of analysis," he said. "But let me assure you, the decisions at the CIA will be mine."
He promised to root out any "yes men," saying: "I would encourage dissent. I always have."
Panetta also told the committee that he would brief the entire House and Senate intelligence committees as much as possible, rather than just its top members. He said the Bush administration abused that practice.
"Too often critical issues were kept from this committee," he said.
One of those issues, according to the senators, was the information that the CIA last October recalled its top spy in Algeria because he allegedly raped two women. The committee only learned of the action from news reports this week.
Panetta said Congress should have been informed last fall, and he said the CIA officer should not only have been called back to Washington but fired immediately.