WASHINGTON – The United States will continue to hand foreign detainees over to other countries for questioning, but only with assurances they will not be tortured, Leon Panetta told a Senate committee considering his confirmation as CIA director.
That has long been U.S. policy, but some former prisoners subjected to the process - known as extraordinary rendition - during the Bush administration's anti-terror war say they were tortured.
"I will seek the same kind of assurances that they will not be treated inhumanely," Panetta said Friday in his second day before the Senate Intelligence Committee. "I intend to use the State Department to be sure those assurances are implemented and stood by, by those countries."
Panetta formally retracted a statement he made Thursday that the Bush administration transferred prisoners for the purpose of torture.
"I am not aware of the validity of those claims," he said.
Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., chastised Panetta for careless words. "You cannot be making statements or making judgments based on rumors and news stories," he said.
Because he has not yet been confirmed, Panetta has not been briefed on the details of the secret program.
Panetta said he believed the Bush administration was trying to protect the country from terrorists with its use of secret prisons, renditions and harsh interrogations.
"I think they made some wrong decisions, I think they made mistakes," he said. "I think sometimes they believe the ends justifies the means, and that's where people sometimes go wrong."
He said he thinks that in the fear of another 9/11-style attack, Bush administration officials thought, "We can't be bothered with legalisms."
Panetta said, however, he believes the greatest weapon the United States has against terrorists is its moral authority and commitment to the rule of law.
"The sense that we were willing to set that aside did damage our security," Panetta said.
Panetta said the Obama administration will no longer move detainees to secret CIA prisons for interrogation, because the so-called "black sites" have been ordered closed. But it will move prisoners to other countries for prosecution, he said.
Panetta told senators it's time for the agency to move ahead, rather than dwell on the harsh treatment of foreign detainees in the previous administration.
Panetta will oversee the end of "enhanced" interrogation and the closure of secret CIA jails. But he says the Obama administration will not prosecute those who participated, because they were acting on the legal authority of the Justice Department.
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