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Obama's CIA Pick Has Confirmation Hearings

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Former Congressman Leon Panetta, President Obama's choice to head the CIA, came before the Senate Intelligence Committee today. In the Bush administration, the CIA ran secret prisons and engaged in harsh interrogation practices - ones that critics say amounted to torture. Well, today, Panetta promised those policies would end.

NPR's Tom Gjelten reports.

TOM GJELTEN: The CIA controversies dominated Panetta's confirmation hearing. Senators Dianne Feinstein of California, the committee chair and Kit Bond of Missouri, the ranking Republican, wanted to know whether Panetta would send detainees to secret CIA prisons, black sites. Panetta said no, but he hedged his answer.

Mr. LEON PANETTA (Former White House Chief of Staff): Having said that, if we capture a high-value prisoner, I believe we have the right to hold that individual temporarily to be able to debrief that individual and then to make sure that that individual is properly incarcerated so that we can maintain control over that individual.

GJELTEN: Senator Bond wanted specifics. What, for example, if CIA agents captured Osama bin Laden?

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

Senator CHRISTOPHER "KIT" BOND (Republican, Missouri): What do you do? Where do you hold him permanently?

Mr. PANETTA: We would be...

Sen. BOND: Because I don't think you want to let him loose, do you?

Mr. 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.

GJELTEN: Panetta's comment that bin Laden and other dangerous terrorists could be held temporarily in CIA custody may have struck some as a possible loophole in President Obama's executive order closing down CIA prisons. But Panetta was quick to emphasize that these CIA facilities would differ in key respects from the black sites operated by the CIA during the Bush years.

Mr. PANETTA: Number one, individuals who were held would be able to have access to the Red Cross. Number two, they are individuals who would be held in a temporary basis. And number three, the Army field manual would apply.

GJELTEN: The CIA director Panetta would replace, Michael Hayden, has been criticized in some quarters for his argument that some enhanced interrogation techniques, including waterboarding, actually yielded useful information. But Hayden is credited by many CIA officers for having restored morale at the agency. He vigorously defended CIA officers who fear they might be prosecuted over their involvement in detention and interrogation practices that were authorized at the time. Panetta, today, was careful to denounce waterboarding without denouncing those who did it under orders.

Mr. PANETTA: I believe that waterboarding is torture and that it's wrong. 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 was proper and legal ought not to be prosecuted or investigated.

GJELTEN: On other issues, Panetta said he would resist attempts by policymakers to shape intelligence analysis to fit their policy agenda. He said he was convinced Iran is seeking a nuclear weapons capability. And he said he understood, as CIA Director, he'd be subservient to the director of National Intelligence, Admiral Dennis Blair, who was confirmed to his post last week. For now, Panetta appears headed for easy confirmation.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.