Leon Panetta, President Barack Obama’s choice to lead the CIA, has been publicly critical of the Bush administration for permitting terrorists to be waterboarded, a simulated drowning tactic. But, as The Washington Times’ Eli Lake reported last week, during Mr. Panetta’s tenure as White House chief of staff in the mid-1990s the Clinton administration accelerated a practice known as “extraordinary renditions” - kidnapping terror suspects and sending them without formal judicial proceedings to third countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia that have far less than a stellar human-rights record.
When Mr. Panetta’s confirmation hearings begin Jan. 27, he should be asked to explain his own involvement in implementing these policies during the Clinton years. There is no way to get around the fact that Clinton administration policies implemented on Mr. Panetta’s watch probably helped facilitate the transfer of terror suspects to the custody of foreign governments with human-rights records far worse than that of the United States.
Mr. Panetta’s public, on-the-record, comments about U.S. interrogation methods during the presidency of George W. Bush have sounded like Human Rights Watch talking points. “Fear is blinding, hateful and vengeful. It makes the end justify the means. And why not? If torture can stop the next terrorist attack, the next suicide bomber, then what’s wrong with a little waterboarding or electric shock? The simple answer is the rule of law,” Mr. Panetta wrote in the Washington Monthly last year. “We either believe in the dignity of the individual, the rule of law, and the prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, or we don’t. There is no middle ground. We cannot and we must not use torture under any circumstances. We are better than that.” “We” in his last sentence may not include Mr. Panetta.
It would be interesting to see how Mr. Panetta’s own record as White House chief of staff would look if examined using the standard he cited. When announcing Mr. Panetta’s nomination as CIA director, Mr. Obama said that the former congressman had dealt with intelligence in daily briefings “at the very highest levels.” Well, it was on Mr. Panetta’s watch that the Clinton administration expanded use of “extraordinary rendition” to lock up terrorists.
Talaat Fuad Qassim, a leader of al-Gamaa Islamiya - the Egyptian terrorist organization founded by Ayman al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s second-in-command - was subjected to extraordinary rendition from Bosnia in 1995. He was held aboard a U.S. Navy vessel in the Adriatic Sea and then transferred to Egypt, a country that human-rights groups and the State Department accuse of using electric shocks to torture detainees. Another prisoner, Hani al-Sayegh, a member of Saudi Hezbollah, was suspected of involvement in the June 1996 bombing of Khobar Towers in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, in which 19 U.S. airmen died. Sayegh was handed over to U.S. authorities by Canada and transferred to Saudi Arabia in 1997.
Clinton administration officials have said that in all cases in which suspects were sent to jails in countries with poor human-rights records, assurances were sought that they would not be tortured. But it’s difficult to take such claims very seriously.
Even granting that these officials have the best of intentions, how is it possible to verify with any certainty what closed, authoritarian regimes are doing in their prison systems? It’s taking the word of the fox that he isn’t abusing the chickens in the henhouse. “The Clinton policy in practice meant torture,” said Joanne Mariner of Human Rights Watch. As former CIA official Michael Scheuer put it: “The Egyptians were not stupid. When we asked, they would not say they tortured our people. But everyone knew what was going on. The White House must have known.”
The irony is that Mr. Panetta was chosen because Mr. Obama, under pressure from the hard left of his party, decided not to select a CIA director with an intelligence background for fear that that person would be depicted as a supporter of “torture.”
But now Mr. Obama is saddled with a CIA nominee with a record that includes both a role in the Clinton administration’s extraordinary-renditions policy and ACLU-lite rhetoric that appears to criminalize the limited use of waterboarding by U.S. intelligence. Mr. Panetta’s confirmation hearings offer an opportunity for the Intelligence Committee to pin down where the nominee really stands.