WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama's nominee to head the CIA, Leon E. Panetta, said yesterday that he intends to test the claims by current agency officials that coercive interrogation methods were effective in getting terrorism suspects to talk.
Panetta's comments were the latest indication that the administration might restore some of the CIA's authority to use interrogation techniques that go beyond those allowed for the U.S. military.
But Panetta stressed that he would also examine the "downside" of using coercive methods and that the agency would operate within the law.
Last month, Obama signed executive orders to abolish harsh interrogation methods and close the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Critics contend that prisoners under duress yield bad intelligence. But outgoing CIA Director Michael V. Hayden has argued publicly that the agency's "enhanced" interrogation techniques were highly effective against al-Qaida prisoners and that the agency should be allowed to continue using those methods, as long as they comply with the law.
As part of a White House task force on interrogation policy, Panetta said he would examine the agency's tactics and results in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, seeking to determine "how effective they were or weren't and whether any appropriate revisions need to be made."
Panetta's comments came during the second day of his confirmation hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee. He also said he believed the Bush administration's controversial counterterrorism methods had undermined U.S. security.
"I think sometimes they believed that the ends justified the means," Panetta said. "Our greatest weapon is our moral authority," he said later, and "the sense that we were willing to set that aside, I think, did damage our security."
Panetta, a former California congressman and chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, is expected to be confirmed next week as the central intelligence director, completing Obama's national security team.
In two days of hearings, Panetta promised a clean break with Bush administration policies, while preserving the CIA's latitude to resume certain aggressive tactics.
The CIA has used some methods over the past eight years - such as manipulation of a detainee's sleep schedule - that Obama could opt to reinstate if they are deemed legal.