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Panetta backs rendition, but not torture

- The Washington Times - Friday, February 6, 2009

Leon Panetta, the Obama administration's nominee to head the CIA, said Thursday that the administration would return to Clinton-era practices that sent terrorist suspects to foreign countries for prosecution.

Mr. Panetta said that under the new executive orders President Obama issued on the second day of his presidency, "extraordinary rendition" -- the practice of sending prisoners to foreign dungeons for enhanced interrogation or torture -- would not be allowed. But the nominee told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that returning an individual to a country for trial would be appropriate.

"In renditions where we returned an individual to the jurisdiction of another country, and they exercised their rights to try that individual and to prosecute him under their laws, I think that is an appropriate use of rendition," he said.

The practice, which began decades ago but accelerated under President Clinton and increased even more under President Bush, has been criticized by human rights organizations because in some cases the countries where the suspects were sent, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, were known to torture detainees.

Mr. Panetta also asserted the CIA's right to hold suspects on a temporary basis, a practice that he said was allowed under the executive orders signed by Mr. Obama on Jan. 22.

"Without going into the exact location, if we captured Osama bin Laden, we would find a place to hold him temporarily," he said. "We would debrief him and then we would incarcerate him, probably in a military prison."

Jeffrey Smith, who served as general counsel to the CIA from 1995-96 and who attended Mr. Panetta's confirmation hearing, said, "Rendition will remain in the toolbox. To the extent we want to send someone to a country, we will have to carefully consider the risk that they might be tortured.

"Somebody is going to have to make a judgment on a case-by-case basis as to whether if we send the person to that country we can get assurances that they will not be tortured and that those assurances will be honored."

Mr. Smith added that he believed the Obama administration will develop a mechanism to "monitor governments to verify their assurances" on interrogation.

Under the Clinton administration, when Mr. Panetta served as chief of staff, the CIA received assurances from foreign governments that suspects would not be tortured. However, the former chief of the CIA's unit to track bin Laden, Michael Scheuer, has testified before Congress that those assurances in the case of countries such as Egypt, were worthless.

In his opening statement, Mr. Panetta, who lacks an intelligence background, confirmed that the current deputy director for central intelligence, Steve Kappes, would stay in his current position.

"In this endeavor, I have a full partner in Steve Kappes, one of the most senior intelligence officers at the agency, who has agreed to serve as my deputy." Mr. Panetta said.