US president-elect Barack Obama is completing his national security team by announcing his unusual choices for CIA director and a national intelligence director who may face tough Senate confirmation questioning over how he confronted the Indonesian military when civilian massacres were occurring in East Timor.
Obama was to introduce the two men yesterday, four days after their names leaked to reporters. That gave official Washington time to vent its surprise that Leon Panetta, a former White House chief of staff with no direct intelligence experience, had been tapped to head the CIA.
The other appointee is retired Admiral Dennis Blair, a former head of the US Pacific Command who won high marks for countering terrorism in southeast Asia after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. He worked closely with foreign partners to target the Jemaah Islamiyah in Indonesia and Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines, offensives that crippled both terror groups.
Senator Ron Wyden told reporters on Thursday that he planned to question Blair about the role he played 10 years ago in US efforts to rein in the Indonesian military as it brutally cracked down on civilians in East Timor. Staff aides to other members said they would be listening closely to the answers.
Paramilitary groups sponsored by the Indonesian military with US financial and political patronage slaughtered more than 200,000 East Timorese over two decades. In 1999, as civilians were being massacred, Congress and the Clinton administration cut off all military ties.
Blair, then US Pacific Command chief, pushed for renewing relations with the Indonesian army, reasoning that drawing them closer would give the US more leverage. In April 1999 he was sent to Indonesia by President Bill Clinton to meet with the new military leader and offer to restart some military training. The meeting occurred just days after Indonesian-sponsored militias had slaughtered nearly 60 people seeking refuge in a church. Blair has said he only learned of the massacre a few days after the meeting.
The East Timor and Indonesia Action Network, a human rights group, called Blair a poor choice for intelligence director this week.
“Blair offered the Indonesian military in the midst of massacres encouragement for business as usual. He didn’t criticize their behavior,” group spokesman John Miller said.
Panetta’s prospects for a smooth nomination hearing appeared to improve this week. Word he had been selected was greeted by incoming Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein with shock. She said on Monday she had not been consulted on the pick. On Tuesday, she and Senator Jay Rockefeller, the outgoing Democratic intelligence chairman, had spoken to Obama, who apologized for the slight, and to Panetta and US vice president-elect Joe Biden.
Panetta was not their first choice, Rockefeller said. They both had pushed for the promotion of current Deputy CIA Director Steve Kappes, a popular longtime officer.
Rockefeller said in an interview on Thursday that news that Obama had asked Kappes to remain in his job softened his view on Panetta a great deal.