WASHINGTON — The Obama administration will not prosecute CIA officers who participated in harsh interrogations that critics say crossed the line into torture, CIA Director-nominee Leon Panetta said Friday.
Asked by The Associated Press if that was official policy, Panetta said, "That is the case."
It was the clearest statement yet on what Panetta and other Democratic officials had only strongly suggested: CIA officers who acted on legal orders from the Bush administration would not be held responsible for those policies. On Thursday, he told senators that the Obama administration had no intention of seeking prosecutions for that reason.
Panetta, in an interview with the AP after a second day of confirmation hearings with the Senate Intelligence Committee, said that he arrived at that conclusion even before he began meeting with CIA officials.
"It was my opinion we just can't operate if people feel even if they are following the legal opinions of the Justice Department" they could be in danger of prosecution, he said.
Panetta demurred on saying whether the Obama administration would take legal action against those who authorized or wrote the legal opinions that, for a time, set an extremely high legal bar for an action to constitute torture.
"I'll leave that for others," Panetta said.
Easy confirmation expected
Panetta, a former chief of staff in the Clinton administration and an ex-congressman from California, is expected to be confirmed by a wide margin next week.
Panetta told the committee that the Obama administration will continue to hand foreign detainees over to other countries for questioning, but only if it is confident the prisoners will not be tortured in the process.
That has long been U.S. policy, but some former prisoners subjected to the process — known as "extraordinary rendition" — during the Bush administration's anti-terror war contend they were tortured. Proving that in court has proven difficult, as evidence they are trying to use has been protected by the president's state secret privilege.
"I will seek the same kind of assurances that they will not be treated inhumanely," Panetta said during his second day before the Senate Intelligence Committee. "I intend to use the State Department to be sure those assurances are implemented and stood by, by those countries."
Other political news of note
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.
- Budget deficits shrinking but set to grow after 2015
- Senate readies another volley on unemployment aid
- Obama faces Syria standstill
- Fluke files to run in California
- Animated Boehner: 'There's nothing complex about the Keystone Pipeline!'
Some critics worry that any gray area in delineating policy on renditions could allow for abuses.Video: CIA spooked over Panetta
A detainee could be handed over to another country for reasons other than harsh or coercive questioning. Some prisoners may not have intelligence of value to the United States in its effort to break up global terrorist groups, but they might yield intelligence valuable to another government's more localized security problems.
How such renditions work and what happens after prisoners are handed over are secrets, and it is unclear that the Obama administration would have any more tools to assure humane treatment than its predecessor.
The options are limited: refuse to transfer prisoners to governments that have a history of torture or human rights abuses; require prisoners be allowed regular visits by the International Committee of the Red Cross; or demand that U.S. officials have access to the prisoners after the transfer. Each option carries with it the potential of harming or complicating relationships with foreign intelligence agencies.
'I think they made mistakes'
Panetta formally retracted a statement he made Thursday that the Bush administration transferred prisoners for the purpose of torture.
"I am not aware of the validity of those claims," he said.
Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., chastised Panetta for careless words. "You cannot be making statements or making judgments based on rumors and news stories," he said.
Because he has not yet been confirmed, Panetta has not been briefed on the details of the secret program.
Panetta said he believed the Bush administration was trying to protect the country from terrorists with its use of secret prisons, renditions and harsh interrogations.
"I think they made some wrong decisions, I think they made mistakes," he said. "I think sometimes they believe the ends justifies the means, and that's where people sometimes go wrong."
Panetta said he thinks that in the fear of another Sept. 11-style attack, Bush administration officials thought, "We can't be bothered with legalisms."
Panetta said, however, that he believes the greatest weapon the United States has against terrorists is its moral authority and commitment to the rule of law.
"The sense that we were willing to set that aside did damage our security," he said.
Panetta said the Obama administration will no longer move detainees to secret CIA prisons for interrogation, because the so-called "black sites" have been ordered closed. But it will move prisoners to other countries for prosecution, he said.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.