Obama set to name Panetta to lead CIA

Leon Panetta has no prior experience at the agency. Leon Panetta has no prior experience at the agency.
By Greg Miller and Christi Parsons
Los Angeles Times / January 6, 2009
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WASHINGTON - President-elect Barack Obama has selected Leon E. Panetta, a former California congressman with little experience on intelligence matters, to serve as the next director of the CIA, Democratic officials said yesterday.

The selection puts the prominent Democrat in charge of an agency that has been at the center of a storm of criticism in recent years, including the intelligence failures leading up to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the aggressive tactics that were embraced in their aftermath.

Panetta, who was chief of staff to President 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.

He would step into the post at a time when the CIA is struggling to stay abreast of the demands of the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the pursuit of Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.

Some senior Democrats in Congress questioned the selection.

"My position has consistently been that I believe the agency is best-served by having an intelligence professional in charge at this time," said Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, who, as chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, would be in charge of Panetta's confirmation.

A senior aide to Senator John Rockefeller of West Virginia, outgoing chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Rockefeller "would have concerns" about a Panetta nomination.

Rockefeller "thinks very highly of Panetta," the aide said. "But he's puzzled by the selection. He has concerns because he has always believed that the director of CIA needs to be someone with significant operational intelligence experience and someone outside the political realm."

The Obama team had struggled for weeks to find a suitable candidate for the CIA post, after passing over former high-ranking agency official John Brennan in December, largely because he was seen as too closely tied to the policies of the Bush administration. Brennan withdrew after his potential nomination drew outrage among civil rights and human rights groups.

Panetta would report to retired Admiral Dennis Blair, who was picked by Obama in December to serve as the national intelligence director, a position created in 2004 to oversee the operations of the CIA and the other 15 agencies that make up the US intelligence community.

Panetta would also face the difficult task of stepping into the top job at an agency that has a history of hostility toward outsiders, though as White House chief of staff, Panetta would have been privy to the nation's most sensitive intelligence matters.

Despite that background, some CIA veterans expressed skepticism, saying that it requires years of experience to understand the complexities of intelligence-gathering.

A former top CIA official said that the Panetta announcement signaled two things for the agency: " . . . a) that they want total political control, and b) the dismantling continues."

In recent years, the CIA has seen its role and influence reduced dramatically as part of a reshuffling of the intelligence community. Agency insiders have feared that trend would continue under Obama after the departure of President Bush, whose father was director of the CIA in the 1970s and for whom the agency's campus is named.

Panetta also served on the Iraq Study Group, a panel of experts assembled to advise the Bush administration on the war in Iraq.

With his wife, Sylvia, Panetta currently directs the Leon & Sylvia Panetta Institute for Public Policy, based at California State University, Monterey Bay.

He will join several other leading players in the Clinton administration, including Rahm Emanuel, chief of staff-designate, in the Obama administration.

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