US intel nominee promises no unlawful surveillance
President Barack Obama's nominee to head US intelligence Thursday flatly rejected torture, promised to end special interrogation regimes and refuse the unlawful surveillance of Americans.
Retired admiral Dennis Blair indicated major changes are in store for US intelligence agencies, which have been embroiled in controversy over secret prisons, interrogation practics, and warrantless wiretapping of Americans.
"Torture is not moral, is not legal, is not effective," Blair said at his Senate confirmation hearing.
Blair told the Senate Intelligence Committee he would welcome independent monitoring of the intelligence community "to prevent abuses and protect privacy and civil liberties of Americans."
However, he refused to say waterboarding, a form of simulating drowning, is torture, because he did not want to put in legal jeopardy intelligence officers who engaged in practices authorized at the highest levels.
"I don't intend to reopen those cases of those officers," he said.
Senator Carl Levin said he was "troubled" by Blair's answer.
For the most part, however, Democratic lawmakers praised Blair's candor while some Republicans expressed skepticism about abandoning the more hardline approach of the previous administration.
Blair sketched out a heavy workload for the US intelligence community -- three ongoing wars, concerns about developments in North Korea, Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, and newer issues like global warming and energy security.
"President Obama has made it clear, made it clear to me, made it clear to the American people, that he expects independent analysis," he said.
"He wants the facts. He wants all points of view. And if confirmed, I will strive to meet his expectations."
The Senate hearing came as Obama signed a flurry of executive orders directing the closure of the US detention center at Guantanamo within a year, shutting secret CIA prisons, and placing restrictions on interrogations and the treatment of detainees.
Blair acknowledged that striking the right balance between protecting Americans and safeguarding US values and international reputation will be difficult.
The United States, he said, has not yet found "the correct way to treat this new type of campaign that we are engaged in."
"On the one hand, we have to fight it like a war and detain people and get information from them and protect our citizens.
"On the other hand, we have to maintain our stature as the country that is governed by our values and governed by ideals. We've gone back and forth in many different ways.
"These executive orders are going to give this administration a chance to look at those tough issues and come up with creative solutions for them," he said.
He said he supported uniform rules of interrogation for the military and intelligence services, but he said the rules themselves should be developed as part of a comprehensive policy review.