AFP - President Barack Obama's choice to head the CIA made clear Thursday he would break with Bush administration policy against terror suspects, saying detainees would not be subjected to torture while in US custody or in allied countries.
Leon Panetta, nominated as director of the Central Intelligence Agency, told a senate hearing that he considered waterboarding -- used by the previous administration against at least three terror suspects -- to be "wrong" and that he opposed transfering detainees to foreign countries where they may face torture or other abuse.
Asked at the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing whether the agency would continue the practice of so-called extraordinary renditions to foreign states, Panetta said: "No, we will not."
"Because under the executive order issued by the president, that kind of extraordinary rendition, where we send someone for the purpose of torture or actions by another country that violate our human values, that has been forbidden by the executive order," said Panetta, referring to a decision issued by Obama in his first days in office.
Panetta said some kinds of renditions of prisoners were "appropriate," citing as an example the rendition to France of Carlos the Jackal to stand trial on terrorism charges.
And he said the United States had the right to temporarily hold and question "high value" terrorist suspects captured abroad.
Human rights groups have long accused President George W. Bush's administration of supporting torture by transfering detainees to repressive countries.
Asked whether he was saying the United States had sent prisoners to foreign countries to be tortured, Panetta said he had not been officially briefed on what actually had happened during the renditions over the past eight years.
But he added: "I suspect that has been the case."
Panetta also strongly condemned the use of waterboarding, which simulates drowning, to extract information from detainees.
"I have expressed the opinion that I believe waterboarding is torture and that it is wrong," he said.
"More importantly, the president has expressed the same."
The CIA and other officials have acknowledged using waterboarding against some terror suspects during Bush's tenure, drawing condemnation from rights groups and foreign governments.
Panetta promised to uphold the law and to repair relations between Congress and the embattled agency, which has been castigated over flawed intelligence reports in the run-up to the Iraq war and controversial tactics in the "war on terror."
The nominee also responded to criticism from former vice president Dick Cheney, who accused the Obama administration this week of "turning the other cheek" in the fight against terrorism by deciding to end harsh interrogations and closing the Guantanamo prison.
Panetta said he was disappointed by the remarks and added: "I think we are a stronger nation when we abide by the law and the constitution."
Saying the CIA had undergone a period of dramatic change marked by "frayed relationships" with Congress, Panetta said he wanted to put that era "behind us."
Although his lack of hands-on experience in intelligence work had raised concerns among some senators, Panetta said his many years as a political insider would aid him in the job.
"I know Washington. I think I know how it works. I think I also know why it fails to work."
Panetta, expected to be confirmed by the Senate, did not face tough questioning over his lucrative consultant and speaking fees he reportedly earned from corporations, including some doing business with government national security agencies.
The son of Italian immigrants, Panetta was elected to the House of Representatives in 1976 from a district in central California, serving until 1993.
He was then appointed director of the office of management and budget under president Bill Clinton, and was credited with helping to balance the federal budget.
In July 1994, Panetta was appointed Clinton's chief of staff, serving for almost three years.