By Karen DeYoung and Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 7, 2009
President-elect Barack Obama said yesterday that he has selected a "top-notch intelligence team" that would provide the "unvarnished" information his administration needs, rather than "what they think the president wants to hear."
But current and former intelligence officials expressed sharp resentment over Obama's choice of Leon E. Panetta as CIA director and suggested that the agency suffers from incompetent leadership and low morale. "People who suggest morale is low don't have a clue about what's going on now," said CIA spokesman Mark Mansfield, citing recent personnel reforms under Director Michael V. Hayden.
On Capitol Hill, Democrats on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence were still stewing over Obama not consulting them on the choice before it was leaked Monday and continued to question Panetta's intelligence experience. Vice President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. acknowledged that the transition team had made a "mistake" in not consulting or even notifying congressional leaders, and Obama telephoned committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and her predecessor, Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), yesterday to apologize.
"Obama trusts [Panetta] -- that's a huge plus," committee member Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said, citing Panetta's management expertise as Clinton White House chief of staff and budget director. But "after the past 24 hours, Leon Panetta is likely to get a good grilling" at his confirmation hearing, Wyden said. Several committee Democrats made clear that they expect CIA Deputy Director Stephen R. Kappes and Intelligence Director Michael Morell, the agency's No. 3 official, to be retained for continuity and experience. An Obama transition official confirmed that both will be invited to stay.
The Panetta uproar starts Obama off on the wrong foot with the committee and intelligence professionals and was the latest glitch in what has largely been an unusually smooth and carefully choreographed transition.
"It's always good to talk to the requisite members of Congress," Biden said. "I think it was just a mistake."
In a news conference at his transition headquarters, Obama defended Panetta, even as he emphasized that he has still made no formal announcement about his intelligence team. "I have the utmost respect for Leon Panetta," he said. "I think he is one of the finest public servants that we've had. He brings extraordinary management skills, great political savvy, an impeccable record of integrity." Obama is expected to publicly name Panetta, as well as retired Navy Adm. Dennis C. Blair as director of national intelligence, this week. Panetta began making introductory calls to lawmakers yesterday, Obama aides said.
Although several top CIA officials who have interacted with Obama since the election expressed admiration for his grasp of the issues, the transition process has clearly left a bad taste. One senior official said that "the process was completely opaque" and that the agency was neither consulted nor informed. The official was among several who discussed the subject on the condition of anonymity.
A second official who had worked with President Bill Clinton's national security team while Panetta was chief of staff said he had no recollection of Panetta taking an active role in intelligence briefings or discussions of CIA policy and practice.
"He just didn't make an impression," said the official, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity so he could discuss the matter freely.
An official who participated in the Obama team's deliberations dismissed concerns about Panetta's lack of experience, saying that a number of previous directors had little or no "inside-the-intelligence-community experience. Most of them were from the outside . . . What you need is someone who can represent the agency well in the corridors of power in Washington."
Several of Panetta's former White House colleagues also said yesterday that he appreciated and engaged in national security issues during the Clinton years.
In a clear reference to harsh interrogation policies, including waterboarding, that were used against CIA terrorism detainees, Obama said his team would be "committed to breaking with some of the past practices and concerns that have, I think, tarnished the image of . . . the intelligence agencies as well as U.S. foreign policy."
Almost as an afterthought at the end of his remarks, Obama noted that "there are outstanding intelligence professionals in the CIA" and other intelligence agencies, "and I have the utmost regard for the work that they've done."
A widely held view among intelligence officials was that Obama's team had decided to automatically disqualify any candidate who might have been seen as tainted by association with the controversial interrogation and detention policies of the Bush presidency -- essentially anyone who held a management job in the past eight years. Former senior CIA official John O. Brennan, who headed the transition intelligence team, withdrew his name from consideration over concerns that his association with interrogation and rendition policies under President Bush and then-CIA director George J. Tenet would taint Obama.
A number of Tenet-era officials have argued that they were simply carrying out orders that the president and the attorney general, as well as Congress, had approved. Hayden, the outgoing director, defended interrogation policies, including waterboarding, that many have labeled torture, saying they were necessary to break some terrorism suspects. Although he has told Congress that waterboarding has not been used recently, Hayden publicly supported Bush's decision to retain the option to use "enhanced interrogation techniques."
But one former senior intelligence official noted that many of the people Panetta will be expected to lead would have participated in implementing the interrogation policy. Obama and Panetta "should think twice about pledges they make now" about the handling of terrorism detainees, another former senior official said, "because they may come back to haunt them in the future if some dire circumstances occur."
The desire to retain Kappes and Morell, both of whom held senior positions under Tenet as well as with Hayden, however, indicated that Obama does not intend to clean house beyond the top leadership level.
Obama has said that he plans to close the detention facility at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and that he would "make sure we do not torture." Feinstein introduced legislation yesterday to do both.
The bill provides for "a legal, effective, and humane system of gathering intelligence and holding suspected terrorists." It would close Guantanamo Bay and require detainees either to be charged and tried in this country, transferred to an international tribunal or another country or held "in accordance with the law of armed conflict."
It would also restrict the CIA and other intelligence agencies to 19 interrogation techniques authorized by the Army Field Manual, "creating a clear, single standard across the U.S. government."
Staff writers Walter Pincus and Paul Kane contributed to this report.