Feb. 5, 2009 -- CIA chief nominee Leon Panetta said today at his confirmation hearing that the CIA would no longer turn over terror suspects to third parties for harsh interrogation techniques and that he would generally not seek to prosecute those who may have been involved in the waterboarding of top level al Qaeda detainees.
Discussing the CIA's Renditions Unit, which was established during the Clinton administration, Panetta said the use of extraordinary renditions would not occur under President Obama's orders. "We ought not to use renditions for sending people to black sites," Panetta said.
"I have not fully been briefed on extraordinary renditions but it is my understanding people were sent to black sites. ... The president has acted to prevent extraordinary renditions," Panetta told the Intelligence Committee.
Concerning the issue of waterboarding, which had been used by the CIA on three detainees, Panetta said, "I've expressed the opinion that I believe waterboarding is torture and is wrong."
Panetta said he would not support prosecutions of any officers involved in the practice unless the officials willfully violated U.S. law. "The individuals that did so, did so under a legal opinion that they believed it was legal ... and should not be prosecuted.
"When you're an employee at the CIA you have to operate on the legal opinions provided by the Justice Department ... I do not think you should be prosecuted for that," Panetta said.
Obama's nominee for CIA director also testified that he would not hesitate to go to the president if a terrorism suspect was withholding information. "If we had a ticking bomb situation and ... whatever was being used I felt was not sufficient, I would not hesitate to go to the president of the United States and request additional authority I needed ... but again, I would state the president would not violate the laws that are in place."
Panetta indicated he would support the Intelligence Committee if they were to review interrogation policy under the Bush administration. "This committee should take steps, determine what was done right and what was done wrong. ... If people deliberately violated the law in limited cases, there could be a prosecution," Panetta said.
Asked about recent claims by former Vice President Dick Cheney in an interview with Politico that terrorist attacks were likely to occur if the Bush administration's policies were reversed, Panetta said, "I was disappointed by those comments. ... I think our country is safer when we follow the Constitution and the law.
"We can protect this country, we can get the information we need and we provide security for the American people and we can abide by the law," Panetta added.
ABC News and CIA Rape Case
Panetta was also asked about the issue of the CIA's former station chief in Algeria and allegations that he raped women he had secretly drugged. The chairman of the committee, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., expressed her frustration with the CIA not notifying the committee of the issue, "Until ABC put out a press release, we had no formal notification," Feinstein said.
"When that type of behavior comes to the attention of the agency, the committee needs to be informed. ... The level of behavior in the situation, obviously, had to be referred to the Justice Department," Panetta said. "In my view, this person should have been terminated."
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, also expressed his concerns that the oversight committee had not been briefed. "Senator, my understanding is that this case first came to light in October. ... That's when the committee should have been briefed. The allegations were serious enough that it was referred to the Justice Department."
Confronting Al Qaeda and Capturing Bin Laden
Mentioning that al Qaeda is still the top national security threat facing the United States, Panetta said, "We have to do everything possible to strike against them."
While the Obama administration has acted to shut down Guantanamo Bay, the CIA has still continued the use of drones to target and kill suspected al Qaeda targets in Pakistan's tribal areas.
On the vexing hunt for Osama bin Laden, Panetta told the committee, "We have to do everything possible to try to find him. It will be one of my top priorities ... and bring him to Justice.
Asked by Sen. Kit Bond, D-Mo., how the agency would handle the capture of bin Laden, Panetta said, "We would debrief him and probably incarcerate him in a military prison."
Questioned by Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., about repatriating terrorism detainees who are being held at Guantanamo Bay, Panetta said, "I think we have to do a very challenging job of gathering the evidence on these prisoners."
"I think we need to figure which ones can never leave incarceration," Panetta said. "I think there will be a group of prisoners which will have to be held for a very long time."
Asked about the top challenges for the CIA, Panetta said, "I think the greatest challenge is the need to develop the best intelligence in areas that we are not anticipating right now ... that may be an issue in the future. I worry about areas that will concern me in the future: Russia, China, and the current economic crisis. We have to be prepared to ensure that we are not surprised."
In his testimony, Panetta described how he would handle the job as CIA director, telling the committee, "When President Obama asked me to lead this organization he said he wanted someone whom he could trust, who was independent, and who would call them as he sees them. Someone who would tell policymakers what they needed to know, not what they wanted to hear. And someone who knew how to get things done in a bipartisan, professional manner.
"I believe the director should be responsible for shaping the role of CIA in the 21st century to protect this nation, to provide credible and accurate intelligence to policy makers, to undertake those missions that will enhance our security, and to always perform our responsibilities according to the law and our Constitution," Panetta said.
In written questions for the record submitted to the committee, Panetta noted his views on using covert action and CIA paramilitary forces. "There is clearly a role for CIA in paramilitary-style covert action programs, but it will vary with the situation at hand. CIA offers the president a strategic and focused approach for projecting force worldwide that uniquely hides the hand of the United States government. It remains a flexible and creative way to project force, influence events, and meet new requirements from a continuously changing mission worldwide.
"The decisions at the CIA will be mine as director," he told the committee. Panetta's confirmation seems to be on track, and hearings will continue Friday morning.