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Dennis Blair On Torture

Leon Panetta's appointment as CIA director led to a frenzy of coverage (to which I contribute in our new print issue). But I think even smart media people still haven't fully adjusted to the reality that the top dog in the US intelligence community is the Director of National Intelligence, a post created at the urging of the 9/11 commission to coordinate the government's 16 different disparate intel-collecting outfits.

Today Blair had his Senate confirmation hearing, and caused a minor stir when he seemed to resist equating waterboarding with torture. Says the AP:

Blair dodged the question from Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., during his confirmation hearing, even as President Barack Obama was signing executive orders banning harsh interrogations.

Blair said he didn't want to jeopardize intelligence officers who were directed by the Bush administration to use waterboarding against detainees. The technique was used on three high-profile al-Qaida prisoners in 2002 and 2003.

"There were very dedicated officers in intelligence service who thought they were carrying out activities that were authorized at the highest levels. I don't intend to reopen those cases of those officers," Blair said.

What's notable here is that last week Obama's Attorney General nominee, Eric Holder, was willing to flat-out call waterboarding torture, prompting speculation that he'd created legal jeopardy for CIA officers who had engaged in the technique. Blair's comments sound less like some kind of defense of waterboarding than a desire not to send that message. Obama, after all, has shown little stomach for prosecuting people who engaged in detainee abuse over the past few years.

P.S. To be clear, First Read adds that Blair also flatly stated: "There will be no waterboarding on my watch," Blair did say. "There will be no torture on my watch."

--Michael Crowley