US president-elect Barack Obama’s selection of an old White House hand to head the CIA shows a preference for a strong manager over an intelligence expert.
Obama’s decision to name Leon Panetta to lead the premier US intelligence agency surprised the spy community and signaled the Democrat’s intention for a clean break from the policies of the current administration.
Panetta is a retired eight-term congressman, a former White House chief of staff during Bill Clinton’s presidency and a former head of the Office of Management and Budget. There isn’t a hint of direct intelligence collection or analysis experience on his long resume. Instead, he’s only been what Washington calls a consumer of intelligence.
Obama is sending an unequivocal message that controversial policies of US President George W. Bush’s administration approving harsh interrogations, waterboarding, warrantless wiretapping and the secret transfer of prisoners to other governments with a history of torture are over, several officials said.
Obama’s shift away from career intelligence officers to strong managers could also be an attempt to insulate the White House from the sometimes parochial agendas of the secretive spy agencies. The pick transmits the message that Obama’s management team will impose their priorities on agencies, not the other way around.
But despite Panetta’s strong history of bipartisan goodwill, news of his selection struck sour chords not only among predictable Republican skeptics but even among a longtime friend and fellow Californian, incoming Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Senator Dianne Feinstein. She complained about Panetta’s lack of intelligence experience and Obama’s failure to consult with her on the decision.
Dennis Blair, the retired admiral whom Obama is tapping to become the next director of national intelligence — the president’s chief intelligence adviser — has almost as thin a resume as Panetta when it comes to the spy game.
Blair, the former head of US Pacific Command, spent about a year at a post inside the CIA.
He crafted a widely praised counterterrorism military strategy in southeast Asia shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and he brings to the intelligence post the military experience Congress wants to see in one of the two top jobs.
Blair worked closely with foreign partners to target the Abu Sayyaf organization in the Philippines and Jemaah Islamiyah in Indonesia, offensives that crippled both terror groups, said intelligence and military officials familiar with his work.
Neither Panetta nor Blair are tainted by associations with Bush administration policies, in large part because they both come from outside the intelligence world.
The picks were confirmed by two Democratic officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because Obama has not officially announced the choices.
A former senior CIA official who advises the Obama transition said Panetta would bring “good governance” to the agency and, just as importantly, to the administration.
A former Republican, Panetta has good bipartisan political relationships. As White House chief of staff during the Clinton administration, he dealt with sticky foreign policy matters like the Bosnian war.
A former Office of Management and Budget director, he oversaw tens of billions of dollars in secret intelligence spending.