With one hand, he giveth, with the other….
By tapping Leon Panetta to be CIA chief, President-elect Barack Obama sent a clear signal: no to torture. A year ago, Panetta wrote an article declaring, “We cannot and we must not use torture under any circumstances.” And he included waterboarding–which the CIA has used—as torture. When Obama on Friday morning publicly announced his appointment of Panetta, he declared, “under my administration, the United States does not torture.” He noted that he was handing this “clear charge” to Panetta and that this policy “will ultimately make us safer.”
In fact, Obama’s reported first choice for the CIA job, John Brennan, a career CIA official, had had his chances scuttled after bloggers and others griped that he had been soft, if not supportive, when it came to torture and CIA renditions. A New Yorker piece by Jane Mayer identified him as a “supporter” of so-called enhanced interrogation methods. And in a 2006 PBS interview, Brennan said, “we do have to take off the gloves in some areas” but without going so far as to “forever tarnish the image of the United States abroad.” He added that the “dark side has its limits.”
Well, Brennan didn’t get the top post at Langley. But Obama has selected him to be his chief counterterrorism adviser in the White House. The job requires no Senate confirmation. So Brennan will not be inconvenienced by questions regarding any past involvement with CIA renditions and waterboarding. (Brennan has reportedly told Obama he had no direct role in CIA’s abusive interrogation policies and even internally expressed reservations.) In announcing Brennan’s appointment, Obama noted, “John has the experience, vision and integrity to advance America’s security.”
Is this appointment another sign of the Big O’s pragmatism? Brennan, no doubt, knows plenty on the subject of counterterrorism. And he has called for breaking with the Bush policy on Iran and the Middle East. For instance, he has criticized Bush and his aides for unduly bashing Iran. But tapping him does partially negate the message conveyed by the Panetta pick.
I think people are going to have to get used to this sort of Obama give-and-take. Critics certainly don’t have to accept it. But they should expect more of these sorts of episodes. I assume there will be plenty of other instances when Obama will exasperate and hearten his supporters simultaneously. (And don’t forget about Rick Warren.) In this particular case, Obama supporters can only hope that Brennan will now use whatever experience he collected on “the dark side” for the forces of good.
An earlier version of this was first posted at www.davidcorn.com.