Image: CIA headquarters
Saul Loeb  /  AFP - Getty Images file
The lobby of the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency in Langley, Va. President-elect Barack Obama has found that his relations with the agency are among the most difficult aspects of the White House transition.
updated 12/3/2008 12:48:06 AM ET 2008-12-03T05:48:06

For two years on the presidential campaign trail, Barack Obamarallied crowds with strongly worded critiques of the Bush administration’s most controversial counterterrorism programs, from hiding terrorism suspects in secret Central Intelligence Agencyjails to questioning them with methods he denounced as torture.

Now Mr. Obama must take charge of the C.I.A., in what is already proving to be one of the more treacherous patches of his transition to the White House.

Last week, John O. Brennan, a C.I.A. veteran who was widely seen as Mr. Obama’s likeliest choice to head the intelligence agency, withdrew his name from consideration after liberal critics attacked his alleged role in the agency’s detention and interrogation program. Mr. Brennan protested that he had been a “strong opponent” within the agency of harsh interrogation tactics, yet Mr. Obama evidently decided that nominating Mr. Brennan was not worth a battle with some of his most ardent supporters on the left.

Mr. Obama’s search for someone else and his future relationship with the agency are complicated by the tension between his apparent desire to make a clean break with Bush administration policies he has condemned and concern about alienating an agency with a central role in the campaign against Al Qaeda.

Mark M. Lowenthal, an intelligence veteran who left a senior post at the C.I.A. in 2005, said Mr. Obama’s decision to exclude Mr. Brennan from contention for the top job had sent a message that “if you worked in the C.I.A. during the war on terror, you are now tainted,” and had created anxiety in the ranks of the agency’s clandestine service.

One of the first issues Mr. Obama must grapple with is the future of C.I.A. detention: will the agency continue to hold prisoners secretly, question them using more aggressive methods than allowed for military interrogators, and transfer terrorism suspects to countries with a history of using torture?

During the presidential campaign, a constant theme for Mr. Obama was the need to restore “American values” to the fight against terrorism. He pledged to banish secret C.I.A. interrogation rules and require all American interrogators to follow military guidelines, set out in the Army Field Manual on interrogation.

In a speech last year, Mr. Obama cast the matter as a practical issue, as well as a moral one. “We cannot win a war unless we maintain the high ground and keep the people on our side,” he said. “But because the administration decided to take the low road, our troops have more enemies.”

On Wednesday, a dozen retired generals and admirals are to meet with senior Obama advisers to urge him to stand firm against any deviation from the military’s noncoercive interrogation rules.

But even some senior Democratic lawmakers who are vehement critics of the Bush administration’s interrogation policies seemed reluctant in recent interviews to commit the new administration to following the Army Field Manual in all cases.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who will take over as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee in January, led the fight this year to force the C.I.A. to follow military interrogation rules. Her bill was passed by Congress but vetoed by President Bush.

  1. Other political news of note
    1. Animated Boehner: 'There's nothing complex about the Keystone Pipeline!'

      House Speaker John Boehner became animated Tuesday over the proposed Keystone Pipeline, castigating the Obama administration for not having approved the project yet.

    2. Budget deficits shrinking but set to grow after 2015
    3. Senate readies another volley on unemployment aid
    4. Obama faces Syria standstill
    5. Fluke files to run in California

But in an interview on Tuesday, Mrs. Feinstein indicated that extreme cases might call for flexibility. “I think that you have to use the noncoercive standard to the greatest extent possible,” she said, raising the possibility that an imminent terrorist threat might require special measures.

Afterward, however, Mrs. Feinstein issued a statement saying: “The law must reflect a single clear standard across the government, and right now, the best choice appears to be the Army Field Manual. I recognize that there are other views, and I am willing to work with the new administration to consider them.”

Senator Ron Wydenof Oregon, another top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, said he would consult with the C.I.A. and approve interrogation techniques that went beyond the Army Field Manual as long as they were “legal, humane and noncoercive.” But Mr. Wyden declined to say whether C.I.A. techniques ought to be made public.

C.I.A. officials have long argued that publishing a list of interrogation techniques only allows Al Qaeda to train its operatives to resist them. But they say the secrecy has led to exaggeration and myth about the agency’s detention program.

During the presidential campaign, Mr. Obama’s aides said he would consider allowing the C.I.A to continue holding prisoners in overseas jails, but would insist that inspectors from the International Committee of the Red Cross be allowed to visit them. They also said he would end the practice of “rendering” terrorism suspects to countries that have used torture.

One of the retired generals meeting with the Obama team on Wednesday, Paul D. Eaton, who oversaw the training of Iraqi forces for the Army in 2003 and 2004, said in an interview Tuesday that it was crucial for leaders to send the right message on the treatment of prisoners.

General Eaton pointed out that Vice President Dick Cheneyonce dismissed waterboarding, the near-drowning tactic considered by many legal authorities to be torture, as a “dunk in the water” and said such statements influenced rank-and-file soldiers to believe that brutality was not really prohibited.

“This administration has set a tone problem for the military,” General Eaton said. “We’ve had eight years of undermining good order and discipline.”

It is widely expected that Mr. Obama will replace Michael V. Hayden, the C.I.A. director. Among those mentioned as possible candidates for the job are Stephen R. Kappes, a C.I.A. veteran who is the deputy director; Tim Roemer, a former congressman from Indiana who was a member of the Sept. 11 commission; Senator Chuck Hagel, the Nebraska Republican who is retiring from the Senate in January; and Jack Devine, a former head of the agency’s clandestine service who left the C.I.A. before the Sept. 11 attacks.

The flap over Mr. Brennan, who served as a chief of staff to George J. Tenetwhen he ran the C.I.A., was the biggest glitch so far in what has been an otherwise smooth transition for Mr. Obama. Some C.I.A. veterans suggest that the president-elect may have difficulty finding a candidate who can be embraced by both veteran officials at the agency and the left flank of the Democratic Party.

A. B. Krongard, the C.I.A.’s third-ranking official under Mr. Tenet when the detention and interrogation program was created, called Mr. Brennan a “casualty of war” and said he believed C.I.A. tactics were being second-guessed for political purposes. The demise of Mr. Brennan’s candidacy, Mr. Krongard said, “is a huge loss to the country.”

But Mr. Krongard said he believed that ultimately, under a new director and a new set of policies, the agency would find common ground with Mr. Obama.

“The C.I.A.’s no different than any other place,” he said. “Probably 25 percent of the people there really like him, 25 percent don’t like him, and 50 percent are open-minded.”

This article, "After sharp words on CIA, Obama faces a delicate task," was first published in The New York Times.

Copyright © 2013 The New York Times


Discussion comments


Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments