President-elect Barack Obama’s selection of an old White House hand to head the CIA shows a preference for a strong manager over an intelligence expert.
Obama’s decision to name Leon Panetta to lead the premier U.S. intelligence agency surprised the spy community and signaled the Democrat’s intention for a clean break from Bush administration policies.
Panetta is a retired eight-term congressman, former Clinton White House chief of staff, and former head of the Office Management and Budget. There isn’t a hint of direct intelligence collection or analysis experience on his long resume. Instead, he’s only been what Washington calls a consumer of intelligence.
Obama is sending an unequivocal message that controversial Bush administration policies approving harsh interrogations, waterboarding, warrantless wiretapping and the secret transfer of prisoners to other governments with a history of torture are over, several officials said.
Obama’s shift away from career intelligence officers to strong managers also could be an attempt to insulate the White House from the sometimes parochial agendas of the secretive spy agencies. The pick transmits the message that Obama’s management team will impose their priorities on agencies, not the other way around.
But despite Panetta’s strong history of bipartisan goodwill, news of his selection struck sour chords not only among predictable Republican skeptics but even among a longtime friend and fellow Californian, incoming Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Sen. Dianne Feinstein. She complained about Panetta’s lack of intelligence experience and Obama’s failure to consult with her on the decision.
Dennis Blair, the retired admiral whom Obama is tapping to become the next director of national intelligence — the president’s chief intelligence adviser — has almost as thin a resume as Panetta when it comes to the spy game.
Blair, the former head of U.S. Pacific Command, spent about a year at a post inside the CIA. He crafted a widely praised counterterrorism military strategy shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and he also brings to the intelligence post the military experience Congress wants to see in one of the two top jobs.
Neither Panetta nor Blair is tainted by associations with Bush administration policies, in large part because they both come from outside the intelligence world.
The picks were confirmed to The Associated Press by two Democratic officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because Obama has not officially announced the choices.
A former senior CIA official who advises the Obama transition said Panetta will bring "good governance" to the agency and, just as importantly, to the administration. A former Republican, Panetta has good bipartisan political relationships. As White House chief of staff during the Clinton administration, he dealt with sticky foreign policy matters like the Bosnian war. A former Office of Management and Budget director, he oversaw tens of billions of dollars in secret intelligence spending.
In choosing Panetta, Obama passed over a list of former and current CIA officials who had impressive intelligence credentials. All had either worked in intelligence during the Bush administration’s development of controversial policies on interrogation and torture or earlier, during the months leading up to 9/11.
The search for Obama’s new CIA chief had been stalled since November when John Brennan, Obama’s transition intelligence adviser, abruptly withdrew his name from consideration. Brennan said his potential nomination had sparked outrage among civil rights and human rights groups, who argued that he had not been outspoken enough in his condemnation of President George W. Bush’s policies.
Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon hailed Panetta’s pick as a chance to restore the CIA’s accountability to Congress.
"For too long, our nation’s intelligence community has operated under a policy of questionable effectiveness and legality in which consulting two members of the Senate Intelligence Committee counted as consulting with Congress," he said in a statement.
Panetta may face a tough nomination hearing. Feinstein said Monday she was surprised by the pick, adding that she was not informed or consulted.
"I know nothing about this, other than what I’ve read," she said. "My position has consistently been that I believe the agency is best-served by having an intelligence professional in charge at this time."
The top Republican on the committee, Missouri Sen. Kit Bond, was similarly skeptical.
"Job number one at the CIA is to track down and stop terrorists. In a post-9/11 world, intelligence experience would seem to be a prerequisite for the job of CIA director," he said. "I will be looking hard at Panetta’s intelligence expertise and qualifications."
The former senior CIA official who advises Obama defended the choice of Panetta. He said he was selected for his administrative, management and political skills, which will allow him both to control and advocate for the agency.
Veterans of the CIA were surprised at the pick.
"I’m at a loss," said Robert Grenier, a former director of the CIA’s counterterrorism center and a 27-year veteran of the agency, who now is managing director of Kroll, a security consulting company.
He said Panetta is at "a tremendous disadvantage."
"Intelligence by its very nature is an esoteric world. And right now the agency is confronted with numerous pressing challenges overseas, and to have no background is a serious deficit. I don’t say that he can’t succeed. It may that he can compensate for the obvious deficit."
Panetta served on the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan panel that released a report at the end of 2006 with dozens of recommendations for reversing course in the war.
Like Panetta, Blair could face an uncomfortable confirmation hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
In 2006, Blair resigned from his top position at the Pentagon-funded, nonprofit Institute for Defense Analyses after the Senate Armed Services Committee raised concerns about possible conflicts of interest.
After leaving the Navy, Blair became the institute’s president while serving on the boards of two defense contractors that worked on the F-22 fighter jet. He participated in two reviews of the F-22, including one that endorsed an Air Force proposal to buy the F-22 on three-year contracts rather than one-year contracts. The longer-term contracts would financially benefit F-22 contractors by guaranteeing a multibillion-dollar revenue stream for three years.
A 2006 Pentagon inspector general’s report found that Blair took no action to influence the outcome of either of the two studies.
Blair and Panetta would replace retired Adm. Mike McConnell and former Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden, respectively. Both career military intelligence officers said publicly they would stay in their positions if asked.