US president-elect Barack Obama vowed to observe Geneva Conventions bans on torture and outlawed the tweaking of intelligence data for political gain, naming new US spy chiefs in a clean break from the Bush years.
Completing the top ranks of his national security team, Obama named retired admiral Dennis Blair as director of national intelligence and veteran Washington player Leon Panetta to head the Central Intelligence Agency.
“We know that to be truly secure, we must adhere to our values as vigilantly as we protect our safety — with no exceptions,” Obama said on Friday, 12 days before he is sworn in as president.
The president-elect also appointed veteran intelligence operative John Brennan as his chief counterterrorism adviser inside the White House.
Brennan had been a candidate for another top intelligence job, but faced criticism from human rights groups over his stand on some “war on terror” tactics like forced renditions and tough interrogation practices.
Obama said the national security crises and controversies during US President George W. Bush’s administration had delivered “tough lessons” in a clear reference to Iraq and the debate about how to treat “war on terror” suspects.
“We have learned that to make pragmatic policy choices, we must insist on assessments grounded solely in the facts, and not seek information to suit any ideological agenda,” Obama said at a press conference.
Critics accused the Bush administration of cherry picking intelligence about former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction programs to make the case for war in Iraq.
The president-elect declared that the US would also observe the Geneva Conventions on the treatment of terror suspects, after the Supreme Court effectively forced the Bush administration to do so.
“I was clear throughout this campaign and have been clear throughout this transition that under my administration, the United States does not torture,” he said. “We will abide by the Geneva Conventions [and] we will uphold our highest values and ideals.”
Blair will have to juggle a number of ticking national security time bombs including the Iranian nuclear showdown, North Korea’s weapons programs and the anti-terror operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He inherits an intelligence community of 16 fractious agencies still in the throes of reform following monumental failings during Bush’s first term and ahead of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
There is also fallout from the Bush era’s warrantless wiretapping, secret prisons and harsh interrogation programs.
Panetta, who will work under Blair, was former president Bill Clinton’s chief of staff from 1994 to 1997, after 16 years as California lawmaker.
But his nomination raised eyebrows on Capitol Hill as he has little experience in the complex world of spying.
“I will work tirelessly to defend this nation and to provide you, Mr President-elect, with the most accurate and objective intelligence that you need to lead this nation at a time of great peril,” Panetta said.
He takes over from Michael Hayden at the head of an agency which has been sharply criticized for practices such as harsh interrogations, telephone tapping without warrants and secret renditions of “war on terror” suspects.
Hayden offered Panetta a warm welcome, and said it was apparent he was eager to immerse himself in the “details of intelligence and espionage” and had a reputation for “insight, wisdom, and decency.”