Panetta's Peers Back Him for CIA

By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 7, 2009

As a top official at the White House in 1996, Richard A. Clarke was looking for an ally after concluding that the CIA and FBI needed an additional $1 billion for counterterrorism programs. Officials at the Office of Management of Budget were dismissive of the request, so Clarke sought an audience with Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta.

Clarke said he made his case to Panetta, who queried him closely about the need for the funds and whether the agencies were prepared to spend them. As Clarke recalled yesterday, Panetta then gave the go-ahead for the initiative, disappointing a large retinue of hostile budget officials who had gathered in the chief's spacious West Wing office expecting the onetime budget director to skewer Clarke.

"He was in the small handful of people who knew there was a terrorism problem long before anybody else had heard of al-Qaeda," Clarke said of Panetta.

As questions continued to swirl on Capitol Hill about President-elect Barack Obama's selection of Panetta to be his CIA director, several of his former White House colleagues rebutted criticism that he lacked the necessary experience and qualifications for the post. They said Panetta worked closely with President Bill Clinton and his most senior lieutenants on every national security issue that came through the White House between 1994 and 1997 while becoming a sophisticated consumer of intelligence during the daily briefings the CIA provided for Clinton and senior advisers.

"I would seek out his opinion all the time because it was very useful and it was not political," Tony Lake, the national security adviser during Clinton's first term, said in an interview. "He was a very good ally when I needed to go the president."

Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger, Lake's deputy before becoming national security adviser himself, said that Panetta "was part of the decision-making process for every single issue we were dealing with, whether this was in the Oval Office with the president or the Cabinet Room -- the Middle East, Kosovo, China. He was a part of a small group of people who advised the president how to proceed on strategy and substance."

But others remained skeptical of the pick, saying such experience is not what is needed in taking over a spy agency that has been haunted by allegations of ineffectiveness over the years. "He is a very savvy about when intelligence guys walk in the doors and they are putting out a proposition for the president," said Gary Schmitt, an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute who once served as the staff director for the Senate intelligence committee. "But that's a different kind of perspective from understanding whether the chief of station in Pakistan has a handle on what the Pakistani intelligence is really doing."

Panetta is probably best known for his work on domestic issues, including a stint as director of the Office of Civil Rights during the Nixon administration, experience as an eight-term congressman from California and his tenure in the Clinton administration. He initially served as the budget director but was named chief of staff in 1994, in part to bring some order to the Clinton White House, though his tenure was marked by clashes with Clinton's secretive political adviser Dick Morris.

Since leaving the White House, Panetta has occasionally opined on foreign policy issues from his perch as founder and co-director of the Leon and Sylvia Panetta Institute for Public Policy in Monterey, Calif. In op-ed pieces, he said the use of torture in CIA interrogations could never be justified and attacked the Bush administration for excessively broad claims of presidential war powers.

In policy circles, he is well known for his work as a member of the Iraq Study Group, the panel of former officials that developed a compromise plan in late 2006 for a gradual reduction of the U.S. presence in Iraq. A recent book by Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward on President Bush and the Iraq war describes Panetta as very engaged in querying senior officials about the conduct of the war and skeptical of assertions of progress. Yet while Panetta became an early advocate of a timeline for U.S. withdrawal, he ultimately fashioned a compromise with Republican members who did not want to tie Bush's hands, according to panel members.

"He recognized that for the report to have credibility, we had to have a consensus product," said Lee H. Hamilton, who was a co-chairman of the panel. "He reached out and participated in the effort to create consensus."

Former secretary of state Lawrence S. Eagleburger, a former GOP member of the panel, said that from his brief exposure to Panetta on the project he did not see him as somebody who would be out to gut the CIA or rein it in. "He was not a bomb thrower. He wasn't excessively political. He was a part of the team," Eagleburger said. "Like everybody else, he was prepared to find some kind of middle ground."

Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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