Obama Picks Anti-Torture Advocate for CIA Chief

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News outfits are reporting that Leon Panetta has been tapped by President-elect Barack Obama to take over the Central Intelligence Agency.

It’s an unusual choice, for Panetta, a former Democratic congressman who became President Bill Clinton’s budget chief and then his White House chief of staff, has no direct intelligence experience, and the CIA in previous decades has been rather unwelcoming to outsiders. (Obama’s first pick for the spy chief slot, John Brennan, a career CIA officer, withdrew his name, after bloggers and others raised questions about his involvement in the agency’s post-9/11 detention and interrogation programs.) Panetta, if confirmed, will work closely with retired Admiral Dennis Blair, Obama’s choice to be director of national intelligence.

Panetta is an even-tempered and highly regarded Washington player–kind of a Mr. Fixit in a nice suit. He is also a zero-tolerance critic of the use of torture, and he considers waterboarding–a tactic used by the CIA–to be torture. A year ago, he wrote in The Washington Monthly:

According to the latest polls, two-thirds of the American public believes that torturing suspected terrorists to gain important information is justified in some circumstances. How did we transform from champions of human dignity and individual rights into a nation of armchair torturers? One word: fear.

Fear is blinding, hateful, and vengeful. It makes the end justify the means. And why not? If torture can stop the next terrorist attack, the next suicide bomber, then what’s wrong with a little waterboarding or electric shock?

The simple answer is the rule of law….

Those who support torture may believe that we can abuse captives in certain select circumstances and still be true to our values. But that is a false compromise. We either believe in the dignity of the individual, the rule of law, and the prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, or we don’t. There is no middle ground.

We cannot and we must not use torture under any circumstances..

It doesn’t get much clearer than this. (Take that, Jack Bauer!) By picking Panetta, Obama is repudiating the waterboarding ways of the Bush-Cheney administration.

As a member of the Iraq Study Group, Panetta joined with other Establishment poohbahs to criticize George W. Bush’s prosecution of the Iraq war. And in a newspaper op-ed, he noted that the Iraq war “could give al-Qaeda a base for terrorism throughout this critical region.”

Panetta’s views on torture and the Iraq war are unlikely to pose any problems for him during his Senate confirmation. But he has tangled with the agency in the past–and these tussles could emerge as confirmation issues. As Clinton’s budget chief, he sought to cut the CIA’s budget and clashed with then-CIA director R. James Woolsey. A 2007 study produced by the CIA’s Center for the Study of Intelligence described this confrontation:

Leon Panetta, the Clinton administration’s first director of OMB, had indicated to Woolsey early in 1993 that OMB was considering providing the DCI with top-line guidance, perhaps with a publicly disclosed figure, and seeking sizable out-year cuts in intelligence spending….

….From [the Office of Management and Budget’s] perspective, [Woolsey] came across as confrontational in his efforts to keep OMB from examining, and possibly cutting, his budget. One of Panetta’s senior staff officers commented on Woolsey’s approach in dealing with Panetta: “I’ve never seen a more graceless stonewall….” [CIA official] Richard Haver…recalled an episode in which the DCI and [Pentagon] leaders, in a personal meeting with President Clinton, gained the president’s agreement—over OMB objections—to a program and budget Woolsey had worked out in concert with DOD. [Woolsey] was almost euphoric about his success as he returned to CIA headquarters, but he soon received a message from Panetta that Woolsey would “pay” for his budget victory.

Will CIA veterans strike back at Panetta for his efforts to reduce their budget 16 years ago? Will GOPers in the Senate try to embarrass Panetta by bringing this up?

And there’s this: in 1990, then-Representative Barbara Boxer (D-CA) introduced legislation that would have required the president to seek approval from the congressional intelligence committees before mounting most covert operations. (Under this legislation, the president could still stage secret ops to save American lives or rescue American hostages without asking permission from the committees.) The measure failed miserably. Only 70 members voted for it, but one was Panetta. Will that vote come up during his confirmation hearings? One wonders if Panetta still supports the idea of greater congressional oversight of CIA clandestine activities.

A CIA director who has denounced torture, advocated intelligence cuts, and backed greater congressional control of covert operations–that would be….different. This appointment certainly has the potential to spark opposition from inside and outside the agency. But if Panetta manages to make it to Langley without much fuss, that would indeed signal real change in Washington.


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