By Anne E. Kornblut and Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, January 6, 2009
President-elect Barack Obama stunned the national intelligence community by selecting Clinton White House chief of staff Leon E. Panetta, a longtime Washington insider with little intelligence experience, to serve as the next head of the CIA.
The decision -- which was also met with wariness on Capitol Hill -- reflects a desire to change the intelligence power structure, officials close to the selection said yesterday. Obama has chosen retired Navy Adm. Dennis C. Blair as the director of national intelligence, a job he intends to reinforce as the "lead horse" on intelligence issues, an official close to the selection process said.
Panetta, 70, is widely regarded as a good manager who knows the government bureaucracy well. Panetta, a former eight-term member of Congress who has run a think tank in California for the past decade, has no significant ties to the agency that Obama has criticized for using harsh interrogation methods. Panetta has openly objected to the use of such methods, writing in an essay last year that the United States "must not use torture under any circumstances." Obama had trouble filling the CIA slot in part because other candidates were perceived as tainted for having supported aspects of the Bush administration's interrogation and intelligence programs.
Yet Panetta, who also served as director of President Bill Clinton's Office of Management and Budget, has no institutional memory of the intelligence agency and no hands-on experience with its thorniest challenges, including the collection of human intelligence overseas. His lack of experience drew immediate questions, most notably from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the incoming chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, who said she was not briefed on his selection and learned about it from news accounts.
"I was not informed about the selection of Leon Panetta to be the CIA director," Feinstein, who in her new post will oversee his confirmation hearings, said in a statement. "My position has consistently been that I believe the agency is best served by having an intelligence professional in charge at this time."
Sen. Christopher S. Bond (Mo.), the top-ranking Republican on the intelligence panel, voiced similar concerns about Panetta's credentials. "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."
An official close to the selection process said Obama sought an independent outside figure to lead the CIA in the hopes of restoring morale there. Although he was a Democratic congressman from California for many years -- and, like other Obama Cabinet appointees, a Clinton administration official -- Democratic aides repeatedly emphasized his more recent credentials as head of a nonpartisan public policy center, the Leon and Sylvia Panetta Institute for Public Policy, at California State University at Monterey Bay.
The president-elect has also said he hopes to include more civilians in the national security apparatus. In March, in answering questions posed by The Washington Post, Obama said he favored new leadership for the intelligence community that "would seek a greater balance between military and civilian officials." In choosing Panetta, he is placing a civilian at the head of the key agency for foreign intelligence, while substituting one former Navy admiral with another at the helm of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Blair and the current intelligence director, Mike McConnell, are retired from the Navy.
The new intelligence team will be formally announced within a few days, Democratic aides said.
Some lawmakers questioned not only Panetta's experience but also his partisan background. Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.), the last member of Congress to hold the CIA director's job, caused upheaval when he hired several former Republican staff members to key CIA positions.
"The need for the CIA director to be completely apolitical and Panetta's lack of experience in intelligence concerns me," Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), the outgoing chairman of the intelligence panel, said through a Senate aide. In an interview in March, Obama himself said he had been "troubled by both the politicization of intelligence in this administration and the turnover at the top of our intelligence agencies."
Yet other lawmakers responded with cautious optimism. Rep. Peter Hoekstra (Mich.), the ranking Republican on the House intelligence committee, had urged Obama to select a civilian to signal a sharp break with the agency's troubled past; he expressed an openness to Panetta if he would bring about a "change in culture at CIA."
"Whether it's Mr. Panetta or someone else, it's critical that the agency move in a new direction," Hoekstra said.
And John McLaughlin, the CIA's No. 2 official under former director George J. Tenet, said the Panetta selection was "a very good choice."
"What Leon Panetta lacks in direct intelligence experience, he more than makes up in sound judgment, broad governmental experience and savvy about how all the pieces fit together -- perhaps the most important qualities for a CIA director," McLaughlin said. "He also could establish an effective relationship with congressional overseers, a key part of the intelligence equation."
The issue of Panetta's experience will be much more important if Deputy CIA Director Stephen R. Kappes decides to leave or is pushed out. A longtime CIA operations officer with experience in the Middle East, Kappes has been instrumental -- along with Director Michael V. Hayden -- in rebuilding morale within the agency and particularly within the clandestine service.
Under the 2004 reorganization of the intelligence community, the CIA director also heads the National Clandestine Service, giving him authority over all human intelligence collection and operations abroad, including those carried out by the Defense Intelligence Agency, the individual military services and the FBI.
Part of the delay in naming the intelligence team has stemmed from Obama's need to feel comfortable with his choices and, at the same time, meet concerns among Democrats on Capitol Hill that those picked were not directly involved in harsh interrogation techniques, including waterboarding, that were used against detainees, officials said.
Staff writers Walter Pincus and Dana Priest and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.