Obama delivers his spymasters, and a reminder: ‘The United States does not torture’

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With the introduction of President-elect Barack Obama’s intelligence team on Friday, the United States is poised to enter what might be considered the second phase in the counter-terrorism campaign launched after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Obama and his spy chief nominees have promised a dramatic break with the policies of the Bush administration, largely by focusing attention on what they intend to undo -- including shutting down the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, prison complex and ending the CIA’s use of “enhanced” interrogation techniques.

But the incoming administration has been less clear about what it will erect to replace those programs, which drew condemnation from much of the world but often were cited by Bush administration officials as key to keeping the country safe.


The team introduced Friday faces the daunting task of filling in the details on what comes next. Indeed, senior lawmakers and intelligence officials said that retired U.S. Navy Adm. Dennis C. Blair, who is nominated to be director of national intelligence, and Leon E. Panetta, Obama’s choice to head the CIA, might find themselves at the center of an intense debate.

“We need to talk about these problems anew,” said Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice), who introduced legislation Friday to close the Guantanamo Bay prison. A similar bill was introduced this week in the Senate.

More than seven years after the Sept. 11 attacks, the United States is only beginning to chart long-term strategies for dealing with detainees: “How we apprehend them. Where they go. What process they go through,” Harman said. “The expectation of the Obama administration is that they are going to bring this into the sunlight.”

At the same time, current and former U.S. intelligence officials said there were other components of the Bush administration’s counter-terrorism apparatus that the Obama team might find difficult to dismantle, if not enthusiastically embrace.

Among them are overseas prison facilities that are operated by the CIA -- and currently not accessible to Red Cross monitors -- as well as the use of unmanned Predator drones to fire missiles at suspected Al Qaeda and Taliban compounds in Pakistan, strikes that often cause civilian casualties.

Obama appeared to leave little wiggle room in his remarks Friday. The president-elect pledged that his administration would “adhere to our values as vigilantly as we protect our safety, with no exceptions.”


But Obama specifically mentioned only the CIA’s interrogation program, without addressing other pieces of the U.S. intelligence arsenal that may be more difficult to set aside.

Richard Clarke, a former senior U.S. counter-terrorism official who advised the Obama team and was considered for the CIA job, said he did not expect Obama to be any less aggressive in pursuing Al Qaeda.

“Obama consistently talks about using all the weapons in our tool kit to deal with Afghanistan, to deal with terrorism,” Clarke said. “And that does mean all.”

Even so, Clarke said that he believed the new administration would go far beyond tightening CIA interrogation policy and would make sweeping changes to other clandestine programs.

Asked about the CIA’s secret prisons, Clarke said: “I assume they will be closed. Maybe not on Day One.”

The secret prison program was developed in the aftermath of Sept. 11, and at one point included a constellation of undisclosed facilities stretching from Eastern Europe to Thailand.


Under mounting pressure from U.S. courts and other countries, the Bush administration emptied the prisons in 2006, transferring 14 detainees -- including self-proclaimed Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed -- from CIA custody to the military-run camp at Guantanamo Bay.

But the administration kept at least a kernel of the program intact, and the agency is believed to still operate a secret facility near Kabul, Afghanistan. If those prisons are closed in addition to Guantanamo Bay, experts said, the United States would face a dilemma concerning detainees it does not want to release.

“Preventive detention is a tricky issue,” said Daniel Byman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University and former analyst at the CIA. “It’s a sweeping tool and dangerous in the wrong hands. But do you want to be the one who made the decision to let the jihadist go, and he kills someone?”

The Obama team could decide to keep the CIA facilities under a modified framework and, for the first time, allow them to be visited by monitors from the Red Cross. But some experts believe that it is more likely that the U.S. will shut down the CIA prisons and rely more heavily on “extraordinary renditions,” the practice of turning captives over to the custody of other countries.

The CIA began carrying out renditions under President Clinton, but the practice became a source of controversy during the Bush administration, largely because of cases like that of Khaled Masri, a German citizen arrested by the CIA and detained in secret in Afghanistan for months in an embarrassing case of mistaken identity. Masri, like many such detainees, said he was beaten and tortured.

Critics accused the CIA of using renditions to deliver suspects to nations known to engage in torture. But if the United States is no longer willing to hold suspects itself, Obama may have little choice.


“I think it’s reasonable to expect [that Obama] would be much more careful about turning prisoners over,” said another former U.S. intelligence official who has advised the Obama team. “But I would not expect there would be a policy against ever doing renditions.”

John Brennan, a former high-ranking CIA official selected by Obama to serve as his counter-terrorism advisor, could hold wide influence over many of these matters.

Brennan was forced to withdraw from consideration for CIA director because of ties to the agency’s controversial programs. But he has spoken out against harsh tactics, saying in a PBS interview in 2006 that the “dark side has its limits.”

The current CIA chief, Michael V. Hayden, has argued that the agency should be able to use more aggressive interrogation techniques than those authorized for use by the U.S. military, saying that the agency’s interrogation program accounted for the bulk of the intelligence community’s understanding of Al Qaeda.

But senior lawmakers introduced legislation this week that would require the CIA to abide by the Army’s interrogation field manual. And Obama made it clear Friday that he intended to impose sweeping new restrictions.

“Under my administration the United States does not torture,” Obama said, adding that banning such methods “will make us safer and will help in changing hearts and minds in our struggle against extremists.”