WASHINGTON — Leon Panetta, President Barack Obama's surprise pick to head the Central Intelligence Agency, appeared on his way to confirmation Thursday as members of the Senate Intelligence Committee offered little resistance to and few tough questions about his nomination.
Panetta's nomination initially spurred complaints from some lawmakers, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the chair of the Intelligence Committee, that he didn't have the professional intelligence experience needed in a post-Sept. 11, 2001, world and at a time when the United States is fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The toughest questioning came from Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo, the committee's ranking Republican. He said that Panetta, former President Bill Clinton's White House chief of staff, had the drive and focus to be CIA director, but quickly added that "many of us were surprised by your nomination because we believed that the next CIA director should have a professional intelligence background, which you clearly do not have."
Feinstein and initially reluctant Republicans, however, said they were comfortable that Panetta would surround himself with experienced intelligence hands, including Steve Kappes, one of the most senior intelligence officers at the CIA. Panetta said Kappes, a veteran of the agency's clandestine service, would serve as his deputy.
He also stressed a 40-year public career that began as an Army intelligence officer and led to a position on a blue-ribbon panel that studied former President George W. Bush's handling of the war in Iraq, as qualifications.
"At the White House, I was a consumer of some of the most sensitive intelligence our agencies produce," he said in a prepared statement to the committee. "And during my service on the Iraq Study Group, we benefited tremendously from the insights provided by the CIA and other intelligence agencies."
He offered a critical assessment of the CIA's handling and presentation of intelligence on Iraq that the Bush administration used to justify going to war.
"If the agency had been more careful in saying what it actually knew and did not know — and if it had informed policymakers about the reliability and quality of its sources — it might have avoided much of the criticism that followed," Panetta wrote in response to written questions from committee members submitted before Thursday's hearing.
Panetta made it clear that the Obama administration's CIA will operate differently from former President George W. Bush's. He vowed that the agency wouldn't engage in the kind of "extraordinary rendition," transferring suspected terrorists to third countries, some of which practice torture, that the Bush administration did.
CIA Director Michael Hayden has said that the Bush White House moved secret prisoners between countries for interrogation and imprisonment at least 100 times. Panetta said that Obama rejects "that kind of extraordinary rendition — when we send someone for the purpose of torture or actions by another country that violate our human values."
Bond pointed out that President Clinton used rendition at least 80 times. Panetta responded that rendition where the U.S. returns individuals to another country where they're prosecuted under law is 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.
Prompted by questions from Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., Panetta took a swipe at former Vice President Dick Cheney, who offered a scathing assessment of Obama's intelligence and national security decisions in an interview Wednesday with the Web site Politico.
In the interview, Cheney said there's a "high probability" that terrorists will attempt a biological or nuclear attack on the United States that could succeed because of Obama's policy decisions.
"When we get people who are more concerned about reading the rights to an al Qaida terrorist than they are with protecting the United States against people who are absolutely committed to do anything they can to kill Americans, then I worry," Cheney told Politico.
Said Panetta: "I was disappointed by those comments because the indication is that, somehow, this country is more vulnerable to attack because the President of the United States wants to abide by the law and the Constitution. I think we're a stronger nation when we abide by the law and the Constitution."
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