Feinstein backs Panetta for top CIA post

January 08, 2009|By Greg Miller | Greg Miller,Tribune Washington Bureau

President-elect Barack Obama secured the support of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, for his choice to head the CIA yesterday, significantly improving the odds that former California congressman Leon E. Panetta will be the next chief of the spy service.

Feinstein, who as chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee will preside over Panetta's confirmation hearing, said yesterday that she had spoken with Panetta by phone and that she would support his confirmation.

"I believe all systems are go," she said in an interview at the Capitol. "I'm going to vote for him."

Feinstein had indicated Monday that she might oppose Panetta's nomination because he lacked experience in intelligence matters. The endorsement ended a standoff over one of the most important unfilled positions on Obama's national security team just weeks before the inauguration.

Panetta, who previously served as chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, is expected to play a key role in carrying out Obama's pledge to dismantle controversial CIA programs launched by President George W. Bush, including the use of harsh interrogation methods on terrorism suspects.

But critics have questioned the Panetta pick because he has never worked in the U.S. intelligence community. Feinstein said she had received assurances from Panetta that he would surround himself with "very capable professionals."

Officials close to the Obama team have indicated that the president will seek to persuade some senior officials at the CIA - including Stephen Kappes, the deputy director - to stay in their positions after Panetta arrives.

Panetta would report to Dennis C. Blair, a retired Navy admiral tapped by Obama to serve as the Director of National Intelligence, a position that oversees the CIA and the other 15 agencies that make up the U.S. intelligence community.

Aides to Obama indicated that the president-elect could formally introduce Blair and Panetta as nominees as early as Friday.

Feinstein's reversal came after an intense lobbying effort by the Obama team, which had angered the California senator and other key lawmakers by failing to notify them of Panetta's selection before his name was leaked to the press.

Feinstein, who is the first woman to head the intelligence committee, also unveiled legislation yesterday that would impose sweeping new restrictions on the CIA in its interrogation and detention programs.

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