Jan. 22, 2009 -- Retired Adm. Dennis Blair, President Barack Obama's nominee for director of national intelligence, said today that it's time to "turn this new page" on Guantanamo Bay interrogations and how the intelligence community has operated -- though he stopped short of calling waterboarding torture.
Blair testified at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that a series of executive orders signed by Obama this morning would establish a review of how to close Guantanamo Bay and how to interrogate high-value terrorism detainees while respecting human rights and gathering valuable intelligence.
"I don't think we have found the correct way to treat this new type of campaign... that we are engaged in. On the one hand, we have to fight it like a war and detain people and get information from them," Blair said. "These executive orders are going to give this administration a chance to take a look at those tough issues and come up with creative solutions for them."
Blair told the committee, "Torture is not moral, legal or effective. The U.S. government will have a clear and consistent standard for treatment of detainees...the Guantanamo detention center will be closed. It's become a damaging symbol."
Asked if he believed that CIA's past practice of aggressive interrogations, which included the use of waterboarding of three high-level al Qaeda operatives, had been effective, Blair replied, "I'll have to look into that more closely and get back to you."
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., closely questioned Blair on his views about waterboarding and its legality. Blair told the committee, "There will be no waterboarding on my watch… there will be no torture on my watch."
Pressed about the CIA's tactics, 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.
"Dedicated intelligence officers ... checked to see that what they were doing was legal and then did what they were told to do."
Levin responded, "Your reluctance to give your own judgment on that question, it seems to me, is troubling to me."
Hayden, Holder on Waterboarding
Outgoing CIA Director General Michael Hayden has said that the controversial use of waterboarding on three detainees and the CIA's detention and interrogation of almost 100 Al Qaeda detainees had provided valuable U.S. intelligence and prevented attacks after 9/11. "Half of our knowledge of al-Qaeda in 2006 came from CIA detainees," Hayden recently told reporters.
But another Obama nominee, Attorney General designate Eric Holder, was unequivocal in his declaration at his confirmation hearing last week, stating his belief that "waterboarding is torture."
Blairl also testified that he believed there will be one uniform U.S. government manual on how interrogations are conducted, as opposed to a combination of the Army's field manual -- which had been the standard -- and policy and legal guidelines laid out by the Justice Department and the CIA for the CIA's aggressive interrogations. "It won't be called the Army field manual any more," Blair said of the new uniform manual. "It will be called the manual for government interrogations. So I think this review is very important."
Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., expressed her concern that a recent national intelligence study found that 27 percent of the intelligence community was comprised of contractors. Blair said he would look at the issue and added that interrogations should be done by professionals, not contractors. "My strong preference is that interrogators in the intelligence world be a professional cadre of the best interrogators…[and] our use of contractors be limited to times where maybe you need a particular dialect."
Blair, a retired admiral who served as commander in chief of U.S. Pacific Command from 1999-2002, said that his main focus would be on combating the immediate threat of anti-American terrorism while also focusing on the ongoing campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Challenges for Next Director of National Intelligence
In his testimony Blair cited challenges he would likely face in the new post, including, "How the United States adjusts to and manages the growing power and influence of China, India and key countries in the developing world, as well as trends, threats and opportunities that arise because of failing states."
Aside form terrorist threats, Blair said the U.S. needed to focus on weapons proliferation, increasing concerns about cyber attacks and drug traffickers who could harm U.S. interests. "We also cannot lose sight of new issues that may pose grave dangers such as global warming, energy supplies, food prices and pandemic diseases."
Blair is widely expected to be confirmed by the Senate. He was questioned about two points that media reports and groups have speculated could derail his nomination. These include his failure to recuse himself in reviewing a research program for the F-22 fighter while he served as the president of the Institute for Defense Analyses and serving on the boards of two companies with an interest in the F-22 program. Blair was also questioned about his contacts with the Indonesian military during a brutal military crackdown against East Timor, which is now an independent country.
Blair denounced reports that he went out of the chain of command while he was head of U.S. Pacific Command and maintained contacts with the Indonesian military. "When it came to dealing with the Indonesians, I was a member of the [U.S.] government carrying out government policy in what I said to the Indonesians. There were no wink-wink, nod-nods from me to Indonesian officers to go ahead and do what you want, I'm for you….That's absolutely flat wrong," Blair said.
Concerning past oversight issues of the Bush administration on domestic surveillance and detainee interrogations, Blair promised to have more "transparency and accountability" if confirmed.
Feinstein, who recently took over the chairmanship of the intelligence committee, said that she wants to have monthly sessions with the DNI and the CIA director on oversight issues. "The difficult problems and the untoward happenings always come to our attention, so necessarily we have to deal with them," she said. "I think what's important is that we have an openness between the committee, between you, between the various agencies, and that you are forthcoming with us," Feinstein said to Blair.
>h2>Blair: 'We Are Going to WinAt the end of three tough hours of questioning, Blair told the committee, "I am extremely optimistic what we can do…we are going to win this puppy. We've got a mission…we're going to be worthy of the American people. I don't want to dwell on the mistakes that have been made in the past."
Following the hearing Blair was asked if he would be personally deliver the daily intelligence briefing to President Obama. He said, "I'll have a great deal of personal and active involvement...we'll work it out…we'll have the smartest, best informed person talking to the president," Blair said.