WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Obama's choice to be the next CIA director said Thursday that, on his watch, suspected terrorists would not be tortured or sent to other countries that might use torture.
CIA chief nominee Leon Panetta answers questions Thursday at his confirmation hearing.
The confirmation hearing for Leon Panetta, before the Senate Intelligence Committee, was dominated by questions about the Bush administration's interrogation, detention and rendition programs and Obama's efforts to change those policies.
Panetta told the committee he was "absolutely convinced ... we can get the information we need, we can provide for the security of the American people and we can abide by the law."
Panetta said the U.S. government had sent detainees to other countries to be tortured. But when he was challenged by Sen. Kit Bond, the ranking Republican on the committee, he acknowledged he had not been briefed on the program.
Panetta called waterboarding, the interrogation technique previously used by the CIA that simulates drowning, torture. But he said the CIA operatives who carried it out during the Bush administration should not be prosecuted.
He said he would look to the White House for more leeway if he ever felt executive orders signed by Obama limiting interrogation techniques didn't allow enough leeway in the face of an imminent threat.
"If I 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," Panetta told the senators.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, a Democrat from West Virginia, asked Panetta about some recent comments by former Vice President Cheney, who championed many of the CIA's controversial tactics.
Cheney said some people are more interested in reading terrorists their rights than protecting the United States, an obvious dig at the new administration.
When Rockefeller asked if the safety and security of the American people was the absolute No. 1 priority of the administration, Panetta responded, "Everyone agrees that is the No. 1 priority."
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California and chairwoman of the committee, asked what Panetta planned to do about a large pool of private contractors the CIA hired after September 11, 2001, which she said costs the government an average of $80,000 more per person each year than staff employees.
Panetta vowed to reduce the number of contracts.
"We have a responsibility to bring a lot of those duties in-house and to develop the expertise and skills within the CIA to perform those responsibilities," he said.
Panetta applauded the efforts the CIA has made in Iraq and Afghanistan in fighting terrorists and following rogue nations such as Iran and North Korea. He said the biggest challenge for the agency is looking ahead to potential emerging crises. He mentioned Russia, China, Africa, Latin America and the worldwide economic crisis.
When Panetta was nominated to take over the helm of the spy agency, he was criticized by Democrats and Republicans for not having any hands-on experience in the intelligence community. Panetta was an eight-term congressman who also served as former President Clinton's budget director and chief of staff. But his lack of intelligence experience barely got mentioned at the hearing.
Homeland Security Correspondent Jeanne Meserve contributed to this report.