POLITICAL NOTES

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Waterboarding is torture, Panetta says

WASHINGTON: Leon E. Panetta, President Barack Obama's pick to head the CIA, testified yesterday that he believes the harsh interrogation technique known as waterboarding is torture, and he vowed to end an era in which the CIA's conduct became a source of controversy in the United States and drew condemnation around the world. "I believe that waterboarding is torture and it's wrong," Panetta said during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee. Asked whether the president could authorize the agency to resume using such harsh methods, even amid a crisis, Panetta replied: "Nobody is above the law." Panetta, a former California congressman, is expected to be confirmed as early as this week. Observers believe that Panetta would carry out sweeping reforms that would fundamentally alter the CIA's counterterrorism approach, dismantling the agency's secret prisons and other tools that became major sources of controversy.

Nominee Solis' husband settles long-owed taxes

WASHINGTON: Labor secretary nominee Hilda Solis became the most recent Cabinet nominee to face questions about unpaid taxes yesterday as a Senate panel abruptly postponed a scheduled vote on her confirmation. The delay came after it was revealed that Solis' husband had settled tax liens on his California auto repair business this week that had been outstanding for up to 16 years. The discovery posed another political headache for a White House already chafing after tax problems and other controversies derailed some administration appointments, including that of former Sen. Tom Daschle to be health secretary. President Barack Obama pledged in television interviews this week that he would "make sure that we're not screwing up again" in the vetting process. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs insisted that Solis' own tax returns "are in order." "She's not a partner in that business," Gibbs said. "So we're not going to penalize her for her husband's business mistakes."

President planning prime-time Q&A;

WASHINGTON: The White House says President Barack Obama will hold a prime-time news conference at 8 p.m. Monday. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said yesterday that Obama will answer questions from reporters. It will be the first prime-time news conference for Obama, who took office two weeks ago. Obama has used various public appearances, including a speech yesterday at the Energy Department, to push for his economic recovery package. During his transition, Obama held news conferences at several daytime events.

Obama impressed with his helicopter and jet

WASHINGTON: Suffice to say, President Barack Obama likes his new ride. Before taking off yesterday on Air Force One for his first trip as president, Obama told reporters traveling with him that the plane is "spiffy" and showed off his new crew jacket with his name stitched on it. "What do you think of this spiffy ride here? It's not bad," he said to reporters sitting in the back on the plane. The helicopter ride from the White House to Andrews Air Force Base also got the nod. "Very smooth, very impressive," Obama said, adding that the view is "spectacular." Obama jetted off to a House Democrats' retreat in Williamsburg, Va., in hopes of pushing his economic rescue package through Congress. The blue-and-white, specially outfitted Boeing 747 makes a statement wherever it goes, especially on the commander in chief's maiden voyage. "He's saying that he's willing to go anywhere and talk to anybody in order to get a recovery and reinvestment plan that moves this economy forward," said press secretary Robert Gibbs.

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