Is That The Question?

My friend Eli Lake reports for the Washington Times that Republicans on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence intend to question CIA director-designate Leon Panetta about whether he played any role in ordering terrorism suspects extrajudicially kidnapped and sent to other countries for questioning and probable torture while he was chief of staff to Bill Clinton. The 9/11 Commission established that about 100 cases of so-called rendition occurred before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Lake reports that the practice, formally established under George H.W. Bush, might have occurred even before the Reagan administration.

Panetta, of course, largely got the nod to head CIA because of his opposition to torture. What the Senate GOP would explore is whether that opposition is either rhetorical or newly acquired. Clinton administration counterterrorism officials have stated that they received assurances from foreign governments receiving rendered suspects forswearing torture, but no human-rights organization takes those assurances seriously.

Richard Clarke, who was White House counterterrorism czar from Bush 41 to early in Bush 43’s term, exonerates Panetta, however:

"Panetta would not have been involved in extraordinary rendition cases, which were handled by [a lower-level interagency panel called the Counterterrorism Security Group], which I chaired," he said.

We’ll see. It’ll be interesting to see the committee Republicans attempt to portray themselves as anti-rendition, when there’s no record of them objecting to the practice for the last eight years. More likely the goal here is to put Obama’s CIA director-designate in a politically embarrassing position, as most people don’t realize that the Clinton administration got its hands dirty on counterterrorism before the Bush administration did. The idea of Saxby Chambliss expressing a heartfelt appreciation for human rights will be quite a treat.

But cynically or not, Panetta should face questions like these, and he shouldn’t do what CIA director-designates often do when receiving them, which is offering answers in closed sessions. The public is owed a reckoning about the torture that was done in its name, no matter who was president when it occurred. Just because committee Republicans are being selective and obnoxious about this doesn’t invalidate the principle.

Crossposted to The Streak.

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Spencer Ackerman

Spencer Ackerman