Leon Panetta arrived late to the president's speech at the National Archives May 21-but joined already seated members of Obama's national security team, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense secretary Robert Gates, Attorney General Eric Holder, and others. But the CIA director and former Clinton chief of staff was perhaps first to understand the stakes for the Obama administration in taking on its predecessor's policies on intelligence gathering and national security-particularly the detention and treatment of terrorist suspects. After all, Panetta began his career in public service as an Army intelligence officer (and received a commendation medal), and his youngest son recently completed a tour of duty in Afghanistan as a naval intelligence officer.
So no one listening to Panetta at his February confirmation hearing can be surprised that he has sided with intelligence officers against his own party to become something of an outsider in the recent furor with Congress over interrogation and detention. In testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee Feb. 5, the former California congressman and longtime Washington insider said, "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."
Asked whether he shared House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's opinion that those associated with the CIA interrogation program should be prosecuted, 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 Pelosi, many Democrats 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 detainee practices under the Bush administration. Republicans contend that Pelosi as a member of the House Intelligence Committee was one of the first to know of CIA techniques, in 2002. But Pelosi on May 14 accused the CIA of withholding information from Congress and lying about a 2002 briefing. Panetta fired back May 15: "CIA officers briefed truthfully on the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, describing 'the enhanced techniques that had been employed.'" Obviously miffed at his 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 he urged CIA officers to "ignore the noise and stay focused on your mission."
Obama tried to cut through the noise in his speech, declaring that EITs like waterboarding "did not advance our war and counterterrorism efforts; they undermined them." Obama telegraphed that he'd like to put the past behind him ("I have no interest in spending all of our time relitigating the policies of the last eight years"), but what he proposes is little different from the imperfect detainee prosecutions under the Bush administration: allowing some cases to be tried in federal court while others are heard by military commissions. One key difference: Evidence obtained through EITs will not be admissible.
That could jeopardize the cases already built involving the highest-level detainees. Interrogators subjected 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammad and longtime al-Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah to waterboarding.
Former Vice President Dick Cheney said "the enhanced interrogations of high value detainees . . . have without question made our country safer." He is petitioning for release of documents he says will show what information was learned-and lives saved-as a result. Cheney, speaking at the same time as Obama May 21 at another gathering in Washington, called the debate over EITs-used on three detainees-"feigned outrage based on a false narrative."
The face-off between current and past administrations-and among Democrats in power-grows out of confusing Obama policy. After issuing an executive order in January to halt trials by military commissions at Guantanamo, Obama on May 15 announced he was reinstating the military commissions to try suspected terrorists, even though he plans to close the facility by 2010. Democrats last week voted overwhelmingly against funding the closure because they said the president lacked a coherent plan. Obama 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 harder to be president in an age of terrorism than it is to question policy as a presidential candidate.
-with reporting by Emily Belz & Edward Lee Pitts in Washington