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CIA Director Leon Panetta (AP/Photo by Hector Mata)

Too much noise to ignore

National Security | In speeches today, both parties will try to find smooth waters in the current storm over terrorist detainees

Ahead of dueling speeches today on national security-President Barack Obama will address the subject at the National Archives and former Vice President Dick Cheney will speak to a gathering in Washington at the American Enterprise Institute-both parties will be trying to head for smoother currents amid a gathering storm over interrogation of terrorist detainees and what to do with those who remain in detention. But no one listening to CIA Director Leon Panetta at his February confirmation hearing should be surprised that he has sided with intelligence officers against his own Democratic Party in a furor with Congress that has erupted in recent weeks.

In testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee Feb. 5, the former California congressman and Clinton administration chief of staff said, "I've expressed the opinion that I believe that waterboarding is torture and that it's wrong." But Panetta said he also believes "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."

Sen Christopher Bond, R-Mo., underscored the fact that Panetta's position put him at odds with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.: "I'm sure, too, that past and present agency employees will be eager to hear whether you share Speaker Pelosi's opinion that certain people associated with the CIA interrogation program should be prosecuted."

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Panetta was firm: "When you're an employee of the CIA, you have to operate based on the legal opinions that are provided you from the Justice Department, from the attorney general."

Led by Speaker Pelosi, Democrats in the House have called not only for prosecution of CIA interrogators who used so-called enhanced interrogation techniques (EITs) with terror suspects, but also for a truth commission to investigate just how terror detainees were treated under the Bush administration and whether some sort of torture cover-up took place.

Republicans contend Pelosi was one of the first to know of CIA techniques under Bush. Pelosi on May 14 accused the CIA of withholding information from Congress and lying about a Sept. 4, 2002, briefing she received as the House Intelligence Committee's ranking Democrat along with Rep. Porter Goss, the committee's chairman. But CIA records indicate the agency briefed the lawmakers on EITs including waterboarding used at the time against al-Qaida member Abu Zubaydah-who under interrogation indicated al-Qaida-planned attacks on the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge-making Pelosi one of the first members of Congress to be informed that techniques she now says demand prosecution were in use.

Panetta fired back May 15 with his own statement: "CIA officers briefed truthfully on the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, describing 'the enhanced techniques that had been employed.' Ultimately, it is up to Congress to evaluate all the evidence and reach its own conclusions about what happened."

Obviously miffed at his own former colleague from the California House delegation, Panetta said, "There is a long tradition in Washington of making political hay out of our business," and urged CIA officers to "ignore the noise and stay focused on your mission."

The conflict between Panetta and Pelosi is only the leading edge of the Obama administration's murky policy on what to do with terrorists detained in the wake of 9/11. After issuing an executive order in January to close the Guantanamo detention facility by 2010 and halt trials by military commissions there, Obama on May 15 announced he was reinstating the military commissions to try suspected terrorists. He agreed in April to release investigative photos of detainee abuse but has now reversed that decision. All point to a president who is learning in office (and with benefit of daily intelligence briefings) that it's hard to be president in an age of terrorism than it is to question policy as a presidential candidate. Whether Obama can chart a clear course in his speech, and whether Republicans via Cheney can give a clear defense of past policies is worth watching.

Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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