Obama's new spy chiefs a break with Bush years

US President-elect Barack Obama has vowed that his administration will uphold Geneva Convention bans on torture, naming new spy chiefs in a clean break from the Bush years.


AFP - Barack Obama Friday 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, the president-elect 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, 12 days before he is sworn in as president.

The president-elect also appointed veteran intelligence operative John Brennan as his chief counter terrorism 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 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 Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction programs to make the case for war in Iraq.

The president-elect declared that the United States 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.

"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 September 11 attacks in 2001.

There is also fallout from the Bush era's warrantless wiretapping, secret prisons and harsh interrogation programs.

Panetta, who will work under Blair, was 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."

A former commander of US forces in the Pacific from 1999 to 2002, Blair will be only the third director of national intelligence (DNI).

The position was created by Congress in 2004 after investigations revealed that turf-sensitive intelligence agencies failed to share information that might have averted the September 11 attacks. That failure was followed by US intelligence's fateful error on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

Blair told Obama his intelligence services would provide "facts, interpretations, assessments in a straightforward manner.

"We will tell you how well we know what we know and what we don't know."

Current DNI Mike McConnell said Blair was a longtime friend.

"His reputation for intelligence, insight and leadership skill earned over a wide-ranging 34-year Navy career is exceptional."

Brennan's position as Obama's counter-terrorism adviser is a White House appointment that does not require Senate confirmation, and thus sidesteps congressional scrutiny. He will be working with Blair and Panetta, and is expected to play a central role in integrating domestic and international counter-terrorism efforts.

Trained as a spy with Arabic language skills, Brennan rose quickly as a counter-terrorism analyst and manager in the Near East and South Asia branch of the agency's intelligence directorate.

Brennan's chances of becoming CIA chief were apparently derailed when liberal bloggers zeroed in on statements he had made in interviews defending the CIA's use of "enhanced interrogation techniques."

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning

Take international news everywhere with you! Download the France 24 app