Intelligence team formally unveiled

Blair, Panetta challenged to build new anti-terror programs

January 10, 2009|By Greg Miller | Greg Miller,Tribune Washington bureau

WASHINGTON - With the introduction of President-elect Barack Obama's intelligence team yesterday, the United States is poised to enter what might be considered the second phase in the counterterrorism campaign launched after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Obama and his spy chief nominees have promised a break with the policies of the Bush administration largely by focusing attention on what they intend to undo - including shutting down the Guantanamo Bay prison facility and ending the CIA's use of so-called "enhanced" interrogation techniques.

But the incoming administration has been less clear about what it will erect to replace those programs, which drew condemnation from much of the world but were often cited by Bush administration officials as key to keeping the country safe.

The team introduced yesterday faces the daunting task of filling in the details on what comes next. Senior lawmakers and intelligence officials said that retired Navy Adm. Dennis C. Blair, who is nominated to be director of national intelligence, and Leon E. Panetta, Obama's choice to head the CIA, could find themselves at the center of an intense debate.

"We need to talk about these problems anew," said Rep. Jane Harman, a California Democrat, who introduced legislation yesterday to close the Guantanamo prison.

More than seven years after the Sept. 11 attacks, the U.S. is only beginning to chart long-term strategies for dealing with detainees: "How we apprehend them. Where they go. What process they go through," Harman said. "The expectation of the Obama administration is that they are going to bring this into the sunlight."

At the same time, current and former U.S. intelligence officials said there are other components of the counterterrorism apparatus that the Obama team might find difficult to dismantle. Among them are overseas prison facilities that are operated by the CIA as well as the use of Predator drones over Pakistan to fire missiles at suspected al-Qaida and Taliban compounds, strikes that often lead to civilian casualties.

Obama appeared to leave little wiggle room in his remarks introducing Blair and Panetta. The president-elect pledged that his administration would "adhere to our values as vigilantly as we protect our safety, with no exceptions." But Obama only specifically mentioned the CIA's interrogation program, without addressing other pieces of the U.S. intelligence arsenal that might be more difficult to set aside.

Richard Clarke, a former senior U.S. counterterrorism official who advised the Obama team and was considered for the CIA job, said he does not expect Obama to be any less aggressive in pursuing al-Qaida.

"Obama consistently talks about using all the weapons in our tool kit to deal with Afghanistan, to deal with terrorism," Clarke said. "And that does mean all."

The secret prison program was developed in the aftermath of Sept. 11. Under mounting pressure from U.S. courts as well as other countries, the Bush administration emptied the prisons in 2006, transferring 14 detainees, including alleged Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, from CIA custody to the military-run camp at Guantanamo Bay. But the administration kept at least a kernel of the program intact, and the agency is believed to still operate a secret facility near Kabul, Afghanistan. If those prisons are closed in addition to Guantanamo Bay, experts said the United States will face a problem with detainees it does not want to release.

John Brennan, a former CIA official selected by Obama to serve as his counterterrorism adviser yesterday, could have wide influence over these matters.

Brennan was forced to withdraw from consideration for the CIA director position because of ties to the agency's controversial programs. But he has also spoken out against harsh tactics, saying in a PBS interview in 2006 that the "dark side has its limits."

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