The Senate Intelligence Committee is taking up the last of President Barack Obama’s nominee for a high-profile national security post, the surprising pick of Leon Panetta to head the CIA.
Going into Thursday’s public hearing, the former Democratic congressman from California knows he will have to give up lucrative seats on boards of directors, end his consulting work and do without well-paid speeches while running the spy agency.
Panetta earned more than $800,000 in director’s and consultant’s fees, including a $50,000 salary as a professor at Santa Clara University in California. He also netted an additional $250,000 for 12 speeches last year, several of which earned him $28,000 apiece.
Among those hiring Panetta through a Washington-based speaker’s bureau were two troubled financial companies, Merrill Lynch and Wachovia, that took federal aid during the upheavals on Wall Street. Both were bought out by other banks.
Panetta also spoke to the Carlyle Group, an investment firm with interests in defense, financial services, energy and infrastructure companies.
In choosing Panetta, Obama passed over current and former CIA officials with impressive credentials. The other candidates had either worked in intelligence during the Bush administration’s development of policies on interrogation and torture or earlier, during the months leading up to Sept. 11, 2001.
Panetta was not expected to face major opposition. Obama failed to consult with the committee’s new head, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., before going public with the selection. But a hastily arranged phone talk involving Obama, Panetta and Vice President Joe Biden smoothed the ruffled feathers.
If recommended by the committee and confirmed by the full Senate, Panetta would assume control of the CIA just weeks after Obama made dramatic changes in the agency’s interrogation and detention program, directing that secret prisons be closed and interrogations held to methods approved by the military.
Panetta is a strong supporter of Obama’s rules.
"Those who support torture may believe that we can abuse captives in certain select circumstances and still be true to our values. But that is a false compromise. We either believe in the dignity of the individual, the rule of law, and the prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, or we don’t. There is no middle ground," he wrote in the Washington Monthly last year.
Panetta comes with strong management skills, an insider’s grasp of government, and the trust and confidence of the new president. But he has no professional intelligence gathering or analytical experience. The CIA’s current deputy director, Steven Kappes, is expected to remain in that job.