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CIA Nominee Panetta May Face Overhaul of Counterterrorism Measures

February 5, 2009 at 6:35 PM EDT
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As CIA director nominee Leon Panetta undergoes Senate confirmation scrutiny, he faces the job of leading an intelligence agency that is changing course on interrogation tactics and other policies. A former CIA official and a reporter weigh in on the matter.

MARGARET WARNER: Leon Panetta has a long public resume in Congress and the White House, and today he came before the Senate Intelligence Committee hoping to further that service as head of the CIA.

LEON PANETTA, CIA director-designate: I believe the director should be responsible for shaping the role of the CIA in the 21st century, to protect this nation, to keep it safe, and to bring integrity to intelligence operations.

MARGARET WARNER: Panetta described a daunting list of challenges facing the agency, including terrorism, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Iran and North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

The Intelligence Committee chair, Dianne Feinstein of California, began by asking about a policy that President Obama ended two weeks ago with an executive order.

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN, D-Calif.: Will the CIA continue the practice of extraordinary rendition, by which the CIA would transfer a detainee to either a foreign government or a black site for the purpose of long-term detention and interrogation, as opposed to for law enforcement purposes?

LEON PANETTA: No, we will not, because, under the executive order issued by the president, that kind of extraordinary rendition, where we send someone for the purposes of torture or for — actions by another country that violate our human values, that has been forbidden by the executive order.

MARGARET WARNER: Republican Christopher Bond of Missouri asked how else Panetta would deal with captured terror suspects.

LEON PANETTA: I think it’s fair to say that, if we captured Osama bin Laden, that we would find a place to hold him temporarily.

SEN. CHRISTOPHER BOND, R-Mo.: Where do you hold him permanently?


SEN. CHRISTOPHER BOND: I don’t think you’d want to let him loose, do you?

LEON PANETTA: We certainly don’t want to let him loose. We would debrief him, and then we would incarcerate him, probably in a military prison.

MARGARET WARNER: Some liberal lawmakers have called for an investigation of U.S. agents who implemented the harsh interrogation tactics that the Bush administration had deemed legal. Michigan Democrat Carl Levin asked about one particular technique.

SEN. CARL LEVIN,D-Mich.: President Obama has said that waterboarding is torture. The attorney general has said the same thing publicly, that waterboarding constitutes torture. Do you agree?

LEON PANETTA: I’ve expressed the opinion that I believe that waterboarding is torture and that it’s wrong, but more importantly the president has expressed the same opinion.

Having said that, I also believe, as the president has indicated, that those individuals who operated pursuant to a legal opinion that indicated that that was proper and legal ought not to be prosecuted or investigated and that they acted pursuant to the law, as it was presented to them by the attorney general.

SEN. RON WYDEN, D-Ore.: I want to dig into the question of interrogations…

MARGARET WARNER: Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden pressed Panetta on how the limits of interrogation would apply in a so-called “ticking time bomb” scenario.

SEN. RON WYDEN: … person who has critical threat information, urgent information, and you need to be able to secure that information.

LEON PANETTA: In the particular situation that you mention, where you have someone who could be a ticking time bomb, and it’s absolutely necessary to find out what information that individual has, I think we have to do everything possible — everything possible within the law — to get that information.

SEN. RICHARD BURR, R-N.C.: You answered Senator Wyden’s question…

MARGARET WARNER: North Carolina Republican Richard Burr asked Panetta to elaborate.

LEON PANETTA: If we had a ticking-bomb situation and, obviously, whatever was being used I felt was not sufficient, I would not hesitate to go to the president of the United States and request whatever additional authority I would need. But, obviously, I would again state that I think this president would do nothing that would violate the laws that were in place.

MARGARET WARNER: If confirmed, Panetta would be the fifth director of the CIA since 2000.

Terrorism, regional crises

John McLaughlin
Former CIA official
You never take your pack off. It's just a relentless series of issues coming at you. And this is a moment in time when a CIA director is likely to face a more daunting set of issues than probably most CIA directors have.

MARGARET WARNER: And for more on the challenges facing the new CIA director, we turn to John McLaughlin, a career CIA official who served as acting director in 2004; and James Risen, author of "State of War: The Secret History of the CIA." He's a reporter for the New York Times.

Welcome, gentlemen, to you both.

John McLaughlin, beginning with you, what is the toughest part of the job that Leon Panetta will face if he's confirmed as CIA chief?

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN, former acting director, CIA: You never take your pack off. It's just a relentless series of issues coming at you. And this is a moment in time when a CIA director is likely to face a more daunting set of issues than probably most CIA directors have, whether it's all those things that threaten the lives of Americans -- terrorism, weapons of mass destruction -- countries with uncertain futures, like Russia and China, regional crises in the Middle East, countries that have some degree of hostility to us, Iran, North Korea, and so forth.

And you have to manage all of those problems while simultaneously being a manager of intelligence. So there's a whole separate set of problems that he'll have to deal with that have to do with intelligence policy.

No part of the U.S. government in the last eight years has experienced more change than intelligence. Bigger, larger budget, more complex mission, new -- rather dramatically new authorities compared to the Cold War period, and restructured.

And so this whole community is now taking shape. People are discovering what roles they have to play. And so he's got a whole series of policy issues he has to deal with on top of all the substantive issues that will be coming to him.

MARGARET WARNER: How do you see it? What do you think will keep him up at night?

JAMES RISEN, New York Times: Well, I think that there's obviously always going to be threats that you have to deal with. But I think the first thing that -- or the biggest issue I think he has to face is the legacy of the Bush administration and the CIA.

I think the CIA in the Bush administration was like a battered wife. You know, it was -- the more that the agency tried to please the Bush White House, the more conservatives in the Bush administration attacked the CIA, and they had a very dysfunctional relationship that became highly politicized.

And I think one of the first things that Panetta has to do is show some independence from the White House and provide some signals that the CIA is once again going to be as depoliticized as possible.

The other side, in addition to the political problem, I think he has a moral problem, and that is, how do you get past this torture issue, that no matter how often people try to dismiss it or downplay it, it keeps coming up, as you saw again today?

They have to deal with the torture issue. And they have yet to deal with that. And they're...

Holding the system accountable

James Risen
There has to be some way in which people are held accountable or the system is held accountable. And I think that that's one of the problems that Obama is now facing is, how do you look back without finding scapegoats?

MARGARET WARNER: When you say "deal with it," what do you mean?

JAMES RISEN: There has to be some way in which people are held accountable or the system is held accountable. And I think that that's one of the problems that Obama is now facing is, how do you look back without finding scapegoats? And that is a very difficult issue politically and morally. And I think they haven't dealt with that yet.

MARGARET WARNER: But Panetta seemed to send a very clear signal today that he wasn't going to support looking back or investigating or prosecuting people who've been involved.

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: Well, first, I have to say I do disagree with Jim's characterization quite a bit. I don't think that the CIA is politicized, and I would argue that it was not politicized, as he presented it, in the Bush administration.

There were tensions and struggles, but it wasn't an organization that was taking the president what he wanted to hear. And it certainly isn't that today. In fact, I would say this is not a problem the CIA director has to worry about.

Now, on the specific question you raised, I think Leon Panetta is saying, basically, we can put this issue behind us, because the president has issued executive orders that make clear that some of the policies of the Bush administration will not be his policies, particularly involving interrogation methods and the use of sites overseas to hold detainees.

And that's consistent with the way this program has been handled from the beginning, in the sense that it's been adjusted a number of times, as the program progressed, in response to changes in the law or regulations.

The Hamdan case, for example, led to some changes. The Detainee Treatment Act led to some changes. And now we have executive orders that lead to some changes.

And I would just cap that off by saying, if you work at the CIA, something you really crave and welcome is clarity about these things. The CIA operates in a space defined by the president and by the representatives of the people and the Congress, and there's nothing they like better than to have clarity about what that space is. And they have that clarity now, and Panetta made that clear today.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree, James Risen, that these executive orders did give clarity to some of these issues? And how significant an impact will they have on the way the CIA does business, the way it does its job?

JAMES RISEN: Well, that's going to be all in the implementation by the agency and by the White House. I think it's unclear yet how far -- you know, what they do in specific cases. It always comes back to that.

MARGARET WARNER: Because you did see Panetta leave himself some wiggle room there in an extraordinary case.

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: Right. And in the executive orders, there is provision for a task force to look at issues involving detainees. So they've left the door open to adjusting their policies a bit. And we won't know where that's going until that task force finishes its work.

Preventing terrorism

John McLaughlin
Former CIA official
[W]hen it comes to intelligence and the CIA, there's always room for improvement, because the nature of the mission is such that you try to get information. Someone's denying you. They're also trying to deceive you.

MARGARET WARNER: But I think the key question Americans are asking is, will it hobble the CIA in its ability to do the job of detecting and preventing terrorist attacks, which is what...

JAMES RISEN: I think that's the wrong way to look at it, in some ways, because one of the costs -- there's the cost of the way we've operated in what President Bush called the war on terror, led to so much resentment and anger within the Middle East, in Iraq and elsewhere, that it stoked resentment and terrorism.

And so it's a balancing act. When does a tactic so inflame the other side that it leads to more recruitment of terrorists?

MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask about the agency he's going to inherit, because, post-9/11, post-Iraq intelligence failure, there have been efforts to revamp the agency. How much better equipped is it, John McLaughlin, today to collect human intelligence, and analyze it, and run covert ops against the new threats America faces?

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: Well, I think the first thing...

MARGARET WARNER: And in what way?

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: I think the first thing you have to say, Margaret, always is that, when it comes to intelligence and the CIA, there's always room for improvement, because the nature of the mission is such that you try to get information. Someone's denying you. They're also trying to deceive you.

It's different than any other activity in the U.S. government in that respect. And so there's always room for improvement.

That said, I think the agency has taken steps over the last several years that do give it better capabilities in a whole array of places.

MARGARET WARNER: Give us some examples.

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: Well, I think human intelligence, for example, can always be better, but it has improved. If you look at some...

Reshaping the agency

James Risen
I think the CIA, as John said, is completely different from what it was a decade ago. And I think in some ways it's got to go back to the drawing board.

MARGARET WARNER: We have more people who speak the languages, more people who know the cultures?

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: We have more people who -- I don't have the data in front of me, but we have more people who speak the language. The recruits who come into the CIA, 125,000 people a year apply. I looked at that data. These are very impressive people.

And, clearly, the agency would not be having the successes that it's having against terrorists, particularly in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas...


JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: ... in Pakistan, without good human intelligence and good technical intelligence combined.

I think they've also made some strides on what I would just characterize as technical intelligence, because a lot of our means of collecting information are now known to the adversary, and so they've got to be innovative.

Intelligence always has to be technologically ahead of where the public is, because the adversary has access to that. And the agency's been very good at breaking through some of those barriers.

MARGARET WARNER: How much better do you think -- better equipped do you think the agency is today?

JAMES RISEN: I think -- well, I would phrase the question differently. I think the CIA, as John said, is completely different from what it was a decade ago. And I think in some ways it's got to go back to the drawing board.

It's become, in large part, a militarized organization. There's a large paramilitary aspect of the CIA...

MARGARET WARNER: You're talking about the drone attacks and...

JAMES RISEN: Well, just a whole array of things that they do. They're now jailers. They have missiles. And they have a whole, large paramilitary operation.

That has changed the whole nature and the culture of the CIA. And I somebody should at least rethink that and whether that's the proper role for an intelligence organization versus the Pentagon.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you want to briefly make a comment on that?

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: Well, you know, I think -- I agree and disagree. I disagree in the sense that -- that's a small part of what the CIA does. It happens to be the part that comes into public view and is a matter of controversy. There's a vast universe of things, ranging from theoretical mathematics to biology and anthropology, and all sorts of other things that go on there that are much more important.

MARGARET WARNER: There are a lot of new agents and young agents at the agency. Do you think it has the depth and expertise it did, more, different?

JAMES RISEN: You know, I'm not sure about that. I know for a fact that there's been a lot of turnover since 9/11, because people have come in -- very bright people who got frustrated with the bureaucracy and have already left since 9/11.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. We have to leave it there. James Risen, John McLaughlin, thank you both.