Panetta is surprise pick to lead CIA

January 06, 2009|By Greg Miller, Christi Parsons and David Wood | Greg Miller, Christi Parsons and David Wood,Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON - President-elect Barack Obama has selected Leon E. Panetta to serve as the next director of the CIA, apparently concluding that a spy chief who understands politics might be more important than one with deep experience in intelligence matters.

The surprise pick of Panetta, a former congressman and Clinton administration official, would give Obama a CIA director with unquestioned loyalty to the White House and an experienced managerial hand to steer the new administration away from intelligence scandals.

But the selection, disclosed yesterday by Democratic officials who spoke on condition of anonymity, runs the risk of putting an outsider at the helm just as the CIA seemed to be regaining its footing after years of intense criticism for intelligence failures leading up to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and for the aggressive interrogation tactics the agency used in their aftermath.

Panetta, who was chief of staff to former President Bill Clinton, is regarded as a bright political operative and capable manager. But if confirmed by the Senate, he would be among the few directors in agency history with no prior experience at one of the nation's spy services.

Largely for that reason, Panetta's selection met with criticism on Capitol Hill.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who begins her tenure this week as Intelligence Committee chairman, said she was not consulted on the choice, and she indicated that she might oppose it: "My position has consistently been that I believe the agency is best served by having an intelligence professional in charge at this time."

In picking Panetta, Obama risks raising anew questions about the politicization of the CIA, a concern raised by leading lawmakers.

A senior aide to Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV said the West Virginia Democrat, who is the outgoing intelligence chairman, "would have concerns" about a Panetta nomination because the senator "has always believed that the director of CIA needs to be someone with significant operational intelligence experience, and someone outside the political realm."

Democratic officials also confirmed that Obama has selected retired Adm. Dennis C. Blair, also from outside the intelligence community, as director of national intelligence, a position created in 2004 to oversee the operations of the CIA and the other 15 agencies that make up the U.S. intelligence community.

In Maryland, home of the National Security Agency and other spy facilities, changes in the leadership of intelligence agencies are closely watched and there was speculation about whether the current head of the NSA, Lt. Gen. Keith B. Alexander, might also be replaced in a three-agency sweep.

But some insiders said Alexander, respected for his technical skill, might be under consideration as White House adviser on cyber issues, including the defense of the nation's computer networks from outside attack.

Obama has indicated that he favors creating such an office, and Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a Baltimore County Democrat and a key member of the House Intelligence Committee, said he had recommended that Alexander be named White House cyber czar.

"Cyber is one of the biggest national security issues that President Obama will deal with," Ruppersberger said.

Ruppersberger and some senior Washington hands endorsed Panetta's selection.

"A superb choice," said former Rep. Lee H. Hamilton, who worked with Panetta on the Iraq Study Group, which in late 2006 recommended a major shift in Iraq strategy.

"I don't know of anyone with broader experience in the legislative and executive branches, and he certainly dealt with intelligence issues on a daily basis as White House chief of staff," Hamilton said.

Panetta would have learned from that job how to extract "the answers the president needs" from intelligence officials and to prevent him from being deluged with information, he said.

James Bamford, author of The Shadow Factory, about secret American eavesdropping, said Panetta "really knows his way around - he's not just an intelligence junkie."

Bamford said Obama's decision to name two top intelligence officials from outside the intelligence community "signals a clean sweep of everything that went on before" under current CIA Director Michael V. Hayden and former Directors Porter J. Goss and George J. Tenet.

"Somebody who comes in with a fresh eye but can master the material quickly enough I think will carry even more weight" than a career CIA official, said James Dobbins, a retired senior diplomat who was Clinton's envoy to a handful of the world's worst trouble spots.

Some longtime officials took the Panetta news as a signal that Obama is seeking complete political control of an agency with nearly 20,000 employees and a history of hostility toward outsiders and expressed concern that it spells a further reduction in the CIA's influence.

The CIA has seen its role and influence reduced significantly in recent years as part of a reshuffling of the intelligence community. Agency insiders have feared that trend would continue under Obama after the departure of President George W. Bush.

Panetta would probably be charged with reining in controversial programs approved by Bush, including a secret network of CIA prisons, the transfer of detainees to countries known to engage in torture and the use of harsh interrogation methods.

Panetta has run the Leon and Sylvia Panetta Institute for Public Policy since returning to private life. He was elected to Congress in 1976 and became director of the Office of Management and Budget under Clinton in 1993.

Sun news services contributed to this article.

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