Leon Panetta took on former Vice President Dick Cheney on Thursday for warning the nation could be more vulnerable to a terrorist attack because of recent actions by President Barack Obama.
During Panetta’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee to be CIA director, Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) said statements made by “a former senior official” that the new administration was “more concerned with reading the rights to Al Qaeda terrorist than protecting the United States” needed to be clarified.
And Panetta jumped right in.
“I was disappointed by those comments, because the implication is that somehow this country is more vulnerable to attack because the president of the United States wants to abide by the law and the Constitution,” Panetta said. “I think we’re a stronger nation when we abide by the law and the Constitution.”
Cheney told Politico in an interview Tuesday that he worried the nation was more vulnerable to attack since Obama had ordered the military prison at Guantanamo Bay closed and an end to coercive interrogatons.
Panetta’s hearing focused largely on his response to policies carried out during the Bush administration. But it’s not over yet. The Intelligence Committee plans to renew its questioning Friday morning.
The first afternoon of questioning, though, was less controversial than the build-up to it.
When President Barack Obama chose Panetta to lead the CIA, he neglected to tell the committee’s chairwoman, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), drawing a sharp rebuke from her aides who suggested she might not support the nomination.
Early critics of the pick pointed out that while Panetta has wide experience in Washington as a former California congressman, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget and presidential chief of staff to Bill Clinton, he had little hands-on experience in intelligence matters.
On Thursday, many members of the committee appeared supportive of Panetta’s nomination, with much of the questioning focused on the process of “extraordinary rendition” used during the Bush administration.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) asked Panetta whether he believed the United States had “rendered” people to third countries to have them tortured.
And drawing on news reports, Panetta said he believed so.
“I suspect that that has been the case – that we have rendered individuals to other countries, knowing they would use certain techniques … that violated our own standards,” Panetta said.
But he added quickly, I don’t have any evidence of that…But every indication seems to be that we used this extraordinary rendition for that purpose.”
Taking his turn at Panetta, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) raised a question that could pose a new problem for the new Obama administration already reeling in the wake of Tom Daschle’s withdrawal as the nominee for secretary of Health and Human Services.
According to Coburn, retired Adm. Dennis Blair, Obama’s director of national intelligence, has asked John Deutch, a CIA director during the Clinton administration, to serve on an advisory panel overseeing sensitive satellite programs.
The problem, Coburn said, is that Deutch had his security clearance revoked for mishandling classified information on his unsecured computers at home.
Caught off guard, Panetta said he’d have to check into the matter.
“This is the first time I’ve heard that,” he said. “I don’t want to jump to any quick conclusions. Clearly, this is something I need to talk to [Blair] about.”