WASHINGTON — The CIA this week began sending the White House a new classified daily briefing on the worldwide economic crisis, CIA Director Leon Panetta said Wednesday, underscoring growing concern that the global financial meltdown could topple governments or lead to sharp swerves in the foreign policies of hard-hit nations.
The report for President Barack Obama and other top officials, called the Economic Intelligence Brief, is an effort "to make sure that we aren't surprised by the implications of the worldwide economic crisis," Panetta said in his first meeting with reporters since being sworn in Feb. 13.
"It's beginning to have impacts not only in China and . . . countries throughout Europe," but also increasingly in Latin America, where there are fresh signs of economic instability, Panetta said. He specifically cited Argentina, Ecuador and Venezuela.
The daily report — the first issue was delivered to the White House on Wednesday morning — is part of a growing focus on global economics by the U.S. intelligence apparatus.
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Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, who oversees the CIA and other agencies, told Congress two weeks ago that the global crisis is the greatest short-term security threat to the U.S.
One government — Iceland — already has fallen as a result, others face instability while, analysts say, oil powers such as Russia, Iran and Venezuela may find their global influence at least temporarily crimped.
Panetta said the CIA might beef up its cadre of economic analysts, but added, "we've got a pretty good crew."
The agency has long studied the economies of other countries — such as the former Soviet Union and China — but such work has lacked the glamour of fighting communism or tracking terrorists.
"Most people don't realize that CIA analysis has always been multidisciplinary, with a strong economic component. Economic analysis is generally an area of strength for the agency," said John McLaughlin, a former deputy director of central intelligence. "So this doesn't surprise me. It's a resource the government should draw on during the current crisis."
During the hourlong briefing in a conference room near his office, in Langley, Va., Panetta pledged that the Obama administration would assault al Qaida and other Islamic militants without pause. He also said, however, that restoring the agency's credibility on issues such as treatment of detainees would be a priority.
"There's no question this is a war," Panetta said. "Nothing has changed our efforts to go after terrorists, and nothing will change those efforts."
He rejected suggestions that aggressive U.S. attacks on militants in Pakistan, which he refused to discuss in detail, risk destabilizing that country. "This is a very sophisticated enemy that we're dealing with," he said. "I don't think we can stop."
However, Panetta, a former California congressman and White House chief staff, criticized some of the Bush administration's actions, including its treatment of suspected terrorists detained by U.S. forces and strained relations with Capitol Hill on intelligence matters.
Panetta said he personally sees no need for the CIA to use "enhanced interrogation techniques" that go beyond those permitted by a military interrogation manual. He declined to categorically rule them out, however, noting that a review of the techniques is under way.
Panetta repeated the view, which he stated during his Senate confirmation, that CIA officers shouldn't be investigated and prosecuted for conducting interrogations that the Justice Department at the time ruled were legal.
Panetta said the CIA would continue to conduct renditions of terrorist suspects to other countries, but with limits. They will only be sent to countries where they won't be mistreated, he said.
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