WASHINGTON - Leon E. Panetta, the White House pick to lead the Central Intelligence Agency, on Thursday left open the possibility that the agency could seek permission to use interrogation methods more aggressive than the limited menu that President Obama authorized under new rules issued last month.
Under insistent questioning from a Senate panel, Mr. Panetta said that in extreme cases, if interrogators were unable to extract critical information from a terrorism suspect, he would seek White House approval for the C.I.A. to use methods that would go beyond those permitted under the new rules.
"If we had a ticking bomb situation, and obviously, whatever was being used I felt was not sufficient, I would not hesitate to go to the president of the United States and request whatever additional authority I would need," Mr. Panetta said in his nomination hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
He gave no specifics about what interrogation methods he would suggest, but he said that the agency would always abide by the law. He also said he believed that interrogators could reliably get information from detainees using noncoercive means.
"We can protect this country, we can get the information we need, we can provide for the security of the American people and we can abide by the law," Mr. Panetta said. "I'm absolutely convinced that we can do that."
Mr. Panetta would inherit a spy agency governed by rules somewhat more restrictive than under President George W. Bush, because of the executive orders issued by Mr. Obama last month that would shut agency prisons and require agency interrogators, for the time being, to abide by the same noncoercive interrogation techniques as those used by the military.
Some critics of the new administration, including former Vice President Dick Cheney, have said that limiting the agency's role in counterterrorism could backfire and leave the United States more open to a terrorist attack.
In his testimony, Mr. Panetta said that under the rules issued by Mr. Obama, the C.I.A. is still allowed to detain and question terrorism suspects before transferring them to a military jail. But he said that unlike during the Bush administration, the International Committee of the Red Cross would be granted access to C.I.A. prisoners.
Mr. Panetta also said the agency would continue the Bush administration practice of "rendition" - picking terrorism suspects off the street and sending them to a third country. But he said the agency would refuse to deliver a suspect into the hands of a country known for torture or other actions "that violate our human values."
A task force appointed by Mr. Obama is to investigate whether any interrogation methods beyond those currently allowed ought to be approved. Mr. Panetta did not hesitate Thursday to label as torture the interrogation technique known as waterboarding, which C.I.A. interrogators used on three terrorism suspects in 2002 and 2003 and has since prohibited.
But Mr. Panetta said no agency operatives should be prosecuted for waterboarding - which induces the feeling of drowning - or any other interrogation method that had been authorized by the Justice Department.
Before the same Senate panel last month, Dennis C. Blair, who is now the director of national intelligence, declined to say that waterboarding is torture, telling senators that it would be awkward for him to lead intelligence operatives he had accused of carrying out an illegal act.
For years, C.I.A. officials have argued that the agency's detention and interrogation program not only helped thwart terrorist attacks, but also was the government's most valuable resource for gaining insight into Al Qaeda.
Mr. Panetta pledged to examine the harsh interrogation techniques used by the spy agency after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to determine whether any damage done to America's reputation abroad "counterbalanced" the intelligence gained during the interrogations.
Although the C.I.A. can no longer hold prisoners indefinitely, and can no longer hide prisoners from the Red Cross, the exact rules governing agency detention operations remain murky. For instance, Mr. Obama has yet to spell out exactly how long the C.I.A. can detain a prisoner, and how long a detainee can be in C.I.A. custody before the agency notifies the Red Cross.
Obama administration officials said the agency was likely to follow a Pentagon rule that requires Red Cross notification within a few weeks of a prisoner's capture.
Mr. Panetta is scheduled to testify further on Friday, but is expected to be easily confirmed by the Senate, which would make him the final member of Mr. Obama's national security team to join the administration. Mr. Obama did not choose him for the job until early January, after other candidates for the job were passed over because of their association with controversial Bush administration counterterrorism policies.