President-elect Barack Obama’s choice for CIA director, Leon Panetta, served as White House chief of staff during the time the Clinton administration accelerated a practice of kidnapping terrorist suspects and sending them to countries with records of torturing prisoners, human rights organizations and former U.S. officials say.
Republicans on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence will question Mr. Panetta, chief of staff for President Clinton from 1994 to 1997, about what, if any, role he played in shaping the policy known as “extraordinary rendition,” a Republican aide on the committee said. Mr. Panetta’s confirmation hearing is scheduled for Jan. 27. The aide asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue.
The practice — which involves seizing a terrorist suspect in one country and taking him to another without formal judicial proceedings — also occurred under the administration of President George H.W. Bush and possibly even earlier, said a former senior U.S. official in that administration. However, it took place dozens of times under the Clinton administration and rose dramatically after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, according to human rights organizations and former national security officials.
The issue is particularly relevant given the incoming administration’s pledge to end harsh interrogation practices and what Obama campaign documents referred to as “outsourcing our torture to other countries.”
Mr. Obama told ABC News’ “This Week” on Sunday that his advisers were reviewing the outgoing Bush administration’s practices on interrogation and detention but that “it is possible for us to keep the American people safe while still adhering to our core values and ideals.” Mr. Obama appears to have passed over other candidates for CIA chief because of their involvement in harsh treatment of detainees and rendition under the Bush administration. In recent writings, Mr. Panetta has strongly opposed such policies.
“What is ironic here, you have the incoming administration basically reaching outside the circle of individuals with direct intelligence experience ostensibly to avoid any taint with any policy the hard left dislikes, which is interrogations and renditions,” said David Rivkin, who was a White House and Justice Department national security lawyer for the Reagan and first Bush administrations.
“Here you have a person who was involved in rendition, at least at the very senior level, in Panetta. The whole thing is silly,” Mr. Rivkin said.
The Obama transition team declined to comment on the issue.
Samuel R. Berger, who was deputy national security adviser in the first Clinton term and national security adviser in the second, also would not comment on Mr. Panetta’s role, apart from praising him as “someone with tremendous integrity who will have the confidence of the president” and who was “a consumer of intelligence at the highest level” when he served Mr. Clinton.
Mr. Obama, in announcing the nomination on Friday, also said that Mr. Panetta had dealt with intelligence in daily briefings “at the very highest levels.”
Extraordinary rendition differs from ordinary rendition, in which foreign terrorist suspects are seized abroad and brought to the United States for trial. That was the case of the mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, Ramsey Youssef, who was abducted by the CIA in Pakistan.
Talaat Fuad Qassim, a leader of al-Gamaa Islamiya, the Egyptian jihadist group led by al Qaeda’s second in command, Ayman al-Zawahri, in the 1990s, was subjected to extraordinary rendition.
Snatched in 1995 in Bosnia, Qassim was questioned aboard a U.S. Navy vessel in the Adriatic, then sent to an Egyptian prison, according to a Human Rights Watch report released in 2005.
Five suspected terrorists in Albania were seized and sent to Egypt in 1998 for interrogation, according to the report. Human rights groups and the U.S. State Department have accused Egypt of torturing detainees.