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01 October 2023

Obama pledges new intel chiefs will break with past practices

US President-elect Barack Obama (GETTY IMAGES)


US President-elect Barack Obama pledged on Tuesday to make a break with the CIA's controversial war-on-terror practices in naming new intelligence chiefs, but said they would not look backwards.

Obama's comments suggested he had picked Leon Panetta, a former White House chief of staff with no direct intelligence experience, to turn the page on the previous administration's excesses at the CIA without engaging in a purge of the agency.

Obama praised Panetta, 70, as a man of integrity, managerial skill and political savvy but stopped short of confirming his appointment as head of the Central Intelligence Agency, or that of retired Admiral Dennis Blair as director of national intelligence (DNI).

However, he told reporters that the public would see "a team that is committed to breaking with the past practices and concerns that have tarnished the image of the agencies, both intelligence agencies as well as US foreign policy".

The agency has acknowledged that it subjected some detainees to "waterboarding", a form of simulated drowning widely regarded as torture, and held so-called "high value detainees" for years in secret offshore prisons.

It also is alleged to have shipped detainees to other countries for harsh interrogation by foreign intelligence agencies with a reputation for employing torture.

Some human rights advocates have called for the creation of a "truth commission" to review actions taken in the war on terrorism.

But Obama stressed that the CIA, the DNI and other US intelligence agencies had "outstanding" intelligence professionals "and I have the utmost regard for the work they have done.

"And we are committed to making sure that this is a team effort that is not looking backwards, but is looking forward to figure out how to best serve the American people," he said.

In the eyes of some critics, Panetta's lack of intelligence experience made him a puzzling choice at a time when the United States remains embroiled in two wars and a continuing struggle against Al Qaeda.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, the incoming chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said she had not been informed about the decision, and indicated she did not approve.

"My position has consistently been that I believe the agency is best-served by having an intelligence professional in charge at this time," she said in a statement late Monday. In contrast, she praised the selection of Blair as DNI.

The senator, a Democrat from California, later said Obama and Vice President-elect Joe Biden contacted her to explain why they thought Panetta would be the best choice.

"I look forward to speaking with Mr Panetta about the critical issues facing the intelligence community and his plans to address them," Feinstein added.

In his comments to reporters, Obama defended Panetta as "one of the finest public servants we have".

"He brings extraordinary management skills, great political savvy, an impeccable record of integrity," Obama said.

"As chief of staff ... to the president, he's somebody who obviously was fully versed in international affairs, crisis management, and had to evaluate intelligence consistently on a day-to-day basis."

Some observers said that what Panetta lacks in hands-on knowledge of the agency, he will make up for in political clout and credibility with fellow Democrats.

Panetta served for 16 years in the House of Representatives and went on to be President Bill Clinton's chief of staff from 1994 to 1997.

"The advantage of having an outsider would be at this juncture to make a perceived clean break with the various issues that have been the subject of controversy in recent years, especially as it relates to the CIA regarding the handling of detainees or terrorist suspects," said Paul Pillar, a former top CIA officer.

"It is a matter of public trust and perception, living up to the themes of change and so on," he told AFP.

Pillar said it probably would have been difficult to find an insider with the experience and qualifications to be CIA director who would not also have had difficulty getting confirmed by Congress.

Panetta takes over from Michael Hayden, a retired Air Force general whose ouster had been sought by lawmakers unhappy with his defence of the Bush administration's controversial interrogation policies.

An earlier contender for the job, John Brennan, reportedly withdrew his name following criticism of his role in the formation of the CIA's detainee interrogation programmes after the September 11, 2001 attacks.

CIA has had other successful outsiders as directors – John McCone under President John Kennedy and George HW Bush under president Gerald Ford – while others like John Deutch in Clinton's second term were disliked.