President-elect Barack Obama said Friday his administration would not compromise its ideals to fight terrorism, adding at a press conference to announce his CIA and national intelligence nominees that he has told them to honor the Geneva Conventions.
"I was clear throughout this campaign and was clear throughout this transition that under my administration the United States does not torture," Obama said, when asked at the news conference whether he would continue the Bush administration's policy of harsh interrogation. "We will abide by the Geneva Conventions. We will uphold our highest ideals."
Obama announced his choice for CIA director, former Clinton White House chief of staff Leon Panetta, and director of national intelligence, retired Adm. Dennis Blair.
Obama has criticized interrogation practices he says amount to torture and also has promised to close the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The president-elect, who takes office Jan. 20, said he has given the men the clear charge to restore the United States' record on human rights.
"We must adhere to our values as diligently as we protect our safety with no exceptions," Obama said.
During the presidential campaign, Obama ha rshly criticized the Bush administration's policy on interrogation practices.
Obama's CIA and national intelligence nominees were somewhat controversial and had been leaked to reporters four days ago. That gave official Washington time to vent its surprise that Panetta, with no direct intelligence experience, had been tapped to head the agency.
Blair, a former head of the U.S. Pacific Command, won high marks for countering terrorism in southeast Asia after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. He worked closely with foreign partners to target the Jemaah Islamiyah in Indonesia and Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines, offensives that crippled both terror groups.
East Timor a factor
But Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said he plans to question Blair about the role he played 10 years ago in U.S. efforts to rein in the Indonesian military as it brutally cracked down on civilians in East Timor. Staff aides to other members said they would be listening closely to the answers.
"I think it's extraordinarily important at this point when we are trying to send a different message about our values and our priorities in human rights to move as is quickly as is responsibly possible," Wyden said. "I have some questions about whether that has been done and I want to ask about that. I want to ask him about it. I am not making any charges."
Paramilitary groups sponsored by the Indonesian military with U.S. financial and political patronage slaughtered more than 200,000 East Timorese over two decades. In 1999, as civilians were being massacred, Congress and the Clinton administration cut off all military ties.
Blair, then U.S. Pacific Command chief, pushed for renewing relations with the Indonesian army, reasoning that drawing them closer would give the U.S. more leverage. In April 1999 he was sent to Indonesia by President Clinton to meet with the new military leader and offer to restart some military training. The meeting occurred just days after Indonesian-sponsored militias had slaughtered nearly 60 people seeking refuge in a church. Blair has said he only learned of the massacre a few days after the meeting.
The East Timor and Indonesia Action Network, a human rights group, called Blair a poor choice for intelligence director this week.
"Blair offered the Indonesian military in the midst of massacres encouragement for business as usual. He didn't criticize their behavior," John Miller, a spokesman for the group, said.
Obama has said he wants to clean up the U.S. reputation on human rights after eight years of Bush administration policies.
Robert Gelbard, who was ambassador to Indonesia and East Timor from October 1999 to 2001, said in an interview that he has no concerns about Blair's record on human rights, or his qualifications for the job. He acknowledged that he and Blair professionally disagreed over the amount of training the Indonesian military should get, but shared the goal of trying to bring the organization into line with democratic practices.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., sponsored much of the U.S. legislation that cut off Indonesia over its abuse record. Leahy spokesman David Carle said the senator has great respect for Blair, but "continues to feel strongly that Indonesian military officers who were responsible for the atrocities in East Timor should be held accountable. He expects to continue his dialogue with Admiral Blair on these and similar issues in the future."
F-22 conflict of interest inquiry
Blair is also expected to face questions about a conflict of interest investigation over the F-22 jet fighter. He resigned from a Pentagon think tank two years ago after the Senate Armed Services Committee raised questions about his membership on the boards of two defense contractors whose work the think tank was reviewing. Obama's presidential opponent, Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, was one of three senators who called for the investigation in 2006.
In the meantime, Panetta's prospects for a smooth nomination hearing appeared to improve this week. Word he had been selected was greeted by incoming Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., with shock. S
he said Monday she had not been consulted on the pick. On Tuesday, she and Sen. Jay Rockefeller, the outgoing Democratic intelligence chairman from West Virginia, had spoken to Obama, who apologized for the slight, and to Panetta and Vice President-elect Joe Biden.
Panetta was not their first choice, Rockefeller said. They both had pushed for the promotion of current Deputy CIA Director Steve Kappes, a popular and respected longtime officer.
Rockefeller said that news that Obama had asked Kappes to remain in his job softened his view on Panetta a great deal.
Brennan as counterterror adviser
Obama also nominated John Brennan to be his Homeland Security adviser for counterterrorism.
Brennan, a career CIA official, was the first director of the National Counterterrorism Center, the intelligence agency's locus for terrorism strategy and analysis. He had been considered Obama's leading candidate for CIA director, but bowed out late last year after critics said he was too close to the Bush administration's interrogation policies.
It has been reported that Brennan, as a single adviser reporting directly to the president, would oversee and restructure counterterrorism policy for the Obama administration.