Politics & Government

Obama's choice to lead CIA suggests shake-up is coming

Leon Panetta is a member of the United Institute of Peace's Iraq Study Group.
Leon Panetta is a member of the United Institute of Peace's Iraq Study Group. U.S. Institute of Peace / MCT

WASHINGTON — President-elect Barack Obama will name former congressman and Clinton White House chief of staff Leon Panetta to head the CIA, tapping a veteran government manager who once oversaw the top-secret U.S. intelligence budget, but has no hands-on espionage experience, Democratic officials said on Monday.

If he's confirmed by the Senate, Panetta would take over an agency that's leading the fight against terrorism as it struggles to overcome the damage dealt to its credibility and integrity by its 9/11 and Iraq intelligence failures and by its use of interrogation methods on suspected terrorists at secret prisons that many experts consider torture.

"I think he's an inspired choice," said William Perry, former defense secretary during the Clinton administration. "What the CIA needs is strong, steady management at the top, and he can provide that."

Panetta's selection suggests that Obama intends to shake up the agency, which has had little public accounting of its role in detaining top terror suspects and transferring others to regimes known to use torture, a procedure known as extraordinary rendition.

The CIA, which denies subjecting detainees to torture, is part of a 16-agency intelligence community whose annual budget now exceeds $47.5 billion. The agency keeps its own budget and number of employees secret. Its successes, too, are mostly kept secret while some of its failures reach front pages.

Panetta has suggested that Obama could do much to signal a break with Bush administration policies by signing executive orders during his first 100 days that ban the use of torture in interrogations and close the Guantanamo Bay prison.

"Issuing executive orders on issues such as prohibiting torture or closing Guantanamo Bay would make clear that his administration will do things differently," Panetta wrote Nov. 9 in a regular column he published in his local newspaper, the Monterey (Calif.) County Herald.

Panetta, a Democrat, represented Monterey in the House of Representatives from 1977 to 1993.

He served in the early 1960s as an intelligence officer at Fort Ord, a former Army base in Monterey, where he and his wife established a public policy institute affiliated with California State University.

Panetta has no experience in espionage or contemporary intelligence analysis, however. That would make him an outsider at an agency whose veteran officers often resent those who come from outside their highly secretive world.

"He will be an outsider and I think the president wants an outsider's perspective on the CIA," said Lee Hamilton, a former Indiana congressman and a former chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence who heads the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. "The intelligence community has lost a lot of confidence with the American people and the Congress. I'm talking about 9/11, the Iraq war."

Word of Panetta's selection came as a surprise to intelligence officials and to lawmakers, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the incoming chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Feinstein complained in a statement that she hadn't been informed in advance of Panetta's selection, and she suggested that he wouldn't have been her top choice. "My position has consistently been that I believe the agency is best served by having an intelligence professional in charge at this time," Feinstein said.

Hamilton said that Feinstein should've been consulted, but he praised Panetta's selection, and said he believed he'd be confirmed.

"I think Leon is a superb appointment," he said. "I've worked with him for decades. He's exceedingly bright, he's always well informed."

Panetta, 70, a budget, civil rights and environmental expert, would be working under retired Navy Adm. Dennis Blair, who Obama plans to nominate as the director of national intelligence, according to three Democratic officials. The officials confirmed both appointments on the condition of anonymity because the formal announcements weren't expected until later in the week.

Blair would replace Michael McConnell, also a former admiral, who reluctantly gave up a job at a government consulting firm to become director of national intelligence and is known to be anxious to return to private life.

Panetta, the son of Italian immigrants who settled on a farm in California's Carmel Valley, would take over the CIA from Michael V. Hayden.

Hayden is a retired Air Force general whose ouster has been sought by lawmakers who are angered by his defense of the Bush administration's controversial interrogation policies. He's also faced criticism for overseeing while head of the National Security Agency the administration's program of eavesdropping without court orders on the overseas communications of American citizens suspected of having ties to terrorism.

In tapping Panetta to lead the CIA, Obama reached for a Washington veteran who's maintained close ties to the Democratic majority on Capitol Hill, worked with lawmakers from both parties as chairman of the House Budget Committee and as former President Clinton's budget director and chief of staff. He's also unsullied by the controversies buffeting the CIA.

As Clinton's director of the Office of Management and Budget from 1993-94, Panetta oversaw the U.S. intelligence community's budget. As Clinton's chief of staff from 1994-97, he regularly received top-secret intelligence briefings and was briefed on covert operations.

Panetta was a member of the Iraq Study Group, the bipartisan panel that in 2006 recommended to President George W. Bush that he authorize a gradual U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq.

A former senior CIA official who worked with Panetta at the Clinton White House said the selection reflected Obama's belief that he'd "well represent the CIA" by bringing "personal integrity and gravitas and stature" to the agency's top post.

Panetta is "somebody with experience in government, somebody who understands the importance of the relationship between the executive branch and legislative branch," said the former senior CIA official, who requested anonymity because the nomination hasn't been announced.

He brushed aside Panetta's lack of intelligence expertise, saying that other former CIA directors also came with little background, including former President George H.W. Bush, who led the agency from 1976-77.

"It's going to be key for him in making sure that his lieutenants at CIA have that experience," said the former CIA official.

Panetta's selection, however, also appears to reflect the difficulties Obama has had in finding a senior intelligence professional untarnished by the CIA's problems.

John Brennan, a former senior CIA official who leads Obama's intelligence transition team, withdrew from consideration for CIA director amid criticism that he served at the agency while it was formulating its interrogation program.


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