It's been assumed that Barack Obama's planned nomination of Leon Panetta as CIA chief was intended to send a signal to the intelligence community about the use of torture. And Obama made that explicit in his press conference today:
REPORTER: Some are questioning Leon Panetta's lack of intelligence -- lack of experience on intelligence matters. Sorry about that. I know this is tricky for you since you haven't announced him yet but what does he bring to the table for you.
OBAMA: Well, as you noted, I haven't made a formal announcement about my intelligence team. That may be him calling now -- finding out where it's at. I have the utmost respect for Leon Panetta. I think that he's one of the finest public servants that we've had. He brings extraordinary management skills, great political savvy, an impeccable record of integrity. As chief of staff, he's somebody who, to the president, he's somebody who was fully versed in international affairs, crisis management, and had to evaluate intelligence consistently on a day-to-day basis.
Having said all that, I have not made an announcement. When we make the announcement, I think what people will see is that we are putting together a top-notch intelligence team that is not only going to assure that I get the best possible intelligence -- unvarnished -- but that the intelligence community is no longer geared toward telling the president what they think the president wants to hear but instead are going to be delivering the information that the president needs to make critical decisions to keep the American people safe.
I think what you're also going to see is a team that is committed to breaking with some of the past practices and concerns that have, I think, tarnished the image of the agencies and intelligence agencies and U.S. foreign policy. Last point I will make on this is that there are outstanding intelligence professionals in the CIA, DNI and others and I have the utmost regard for the work that they've done and we are committed to making sure that this is a team effort that's not looking backwards but is looking forward to figure out how we're going to serve the American people best.
Of course, a Panetta appointment would send such a signal, since he has been such a pronounced critic of waterboarding and other such practices indulged by the CIA under Bush.
As with all these appointments, though, we should also be looking out for disinformation from the right. Today on Fox, Bill Kristol was trying to stir up opposition to Panetta from the left, pointing out that he was chief of staff at the White House in the 1990s when it began the policy of "extraordinary rendition" (i.e., capturing terrorists and then shipping them to nations where they can be interrogated by governments with fewer prohibitions.
It's true that Panetta was CoS at the time Clinton adopted that policy (he signed the executive order in June 1995, during Panetta's tenure), but that is not prima facie evidence he favored it. Moreover, rendition under Clinton occurred only occasionally; as compared to the massive program involving hundreds of prisoners it became under Bush.
Expect, however, for the question to be raised during confirmation hearings. If it's coming from neocons, though, expect it to turn out to be wrong.