Obama To Pick Intelligence Novice To Head CIA

President-elect Barack Obama is expected to choose former congressman Leon Panetta to head the CIA. Panetta has relatively little experience in national security matters, although he did participate in daily intelligence briefings with President Bill Clinton when he served as Clinton's chief of staff between 1994 and 1997.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

ARI SHAPIRO, host:

And I'm Ari Shapiro. The identity of the man who will keep the secrets was kept a secret until yesterday. He's Leon Panetta, and he's President-elect Barack Obama's choice to head the CIA. Panetta is a former Congressman from California, and he also served as Chief of Staff in the Clinton White House. He has almost no experience in the spy business. So to help make sense of the pick, we're joined this morning live by NPR's Tom Gjelten. Good morning, Tom.

TOM GJELTEN: Good morning, Ari.

SHAPIRO: OK. So Leon Panetta, did anyone see this coming?

GJELTEN: Not anyone that I've talked to, at least outside the Obama circle. This is a total surprise, Ari. Dianne Feinstein, the incoming chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, put out a statement last night saying she was not informed about the choice, and also making clear she wasn't happy about that. There are lots of possibilities for CIA director - were mentioned, but never Panetta. He's got almost no intelligence background, as you say. In fact, it's fair to say that Leon Panetta would be the least experienced CIA director since President Kennedy picked the businessman John McCone for that position back in 1961.

SHAPIRO: Well, there have been plenty of controversies involving the CIA in the last eight years involving enhanced interrogation techniques and other things. How did those debates affect Obama's choice here?

GJELTEN: I think it meant that the Obama team felt in the end they had no choice but to go for an outsider. The current CIA director, Michael Hayden, had made clear he wanted to stay on, but Hayden and other former CIA officers in the end, it seems, were seen as too closely associated with those old controversies, unwarranted wire-tappings, secret prisons.

SHAPIRO: Right.

GJELTEN: Water boarding. I think this choice shows that the Obama people, in the end, probably concluded they couldn't find anybody who had a lot of agency experience, but who was not tainted by those agency controversies.

SHAPIRO: Well, does this suggest that the Obama administration may be taking the CIA in a different direction?

GJELTEN: Well, it would seem so, but it may not be easy for Panetta to turn the agency around precisely, because he is not an intelligence professional. He doesn't know agency operations, the agency culture, the sources and methods available. He'll need a lot of on-the-job training. He'll have to depend on the people already there. The challenge, I think, will be to surround himself with people who know how the agency works, but who are also able to mobilize the agency for the kinds of reforms that are needed.

SHAPIRO: What kinds of reforms are those? What would a reformed agency look like?

GJELTEN: Well, we've talked about interrogation. A top one would clearly be to revamp the agency's interrogation guidelines. Mr. Obama made clear during the campaign he thinks the CIA and other intelligence agencies should abide by the guidelines in the army field manual, which are far more restrictive than what the CIA had been allowing. That's one change. The other big reform issue, I think, is accountability and oversight. The CIA leadership has kind of a black eye on Capital Hill right now among both Republicans and Democrats, because the agency has been less than forthcoming about some of its more controversial practices. I think as a former member of Congress, Leon Panetta would be expected to run the CIA with more sensitivity to the concerns of Congress and repair their relations there.

SHAPIRO: Although, as you mentioned, Senator Dianne Feinstein already was displeased that she didn't know that Panetta was the choice until yesterday.

GJELTEN: Not a good start, is it?

SHAPIRO: Well, President-elect Obama also announced that he would like a man named Dennis Blair to serve as Leon Panetta's boss. Blair would be the Director of National Intelligence. Tell us a little bit about who Blair is, and what his challenges are going forward.

GJELTEN: He's a former senior Navy officer, Ari, a four-star admiral, used to be commander of all the U.S. forces in the Pacific. And in that respect, he has that in common with the current Director of National Intelligence, Mike McConnell. Also Michael Hayden, the outgoing Director of the CIA, is a retired Air Force general. So we've got these - we got this tradition here continuing of senior intelligence people from the military. And I think Blair will be under some pressure to show his independence from the military. Another big issue for Dennis Blair is intelligence reform. This position, Director of National Intelligence, was created less than five years ago, and the role and the resources that go with it are still being worked through. There's likely to be a turf battle between the DNA - DNI, and the CIA over authorities and resources. So I think we can expect to see some rivalry between Dennis Blair and Leon Panetta.

SHAPIRO: Thanks, Tom.

GJELTEN: You're welcome, Ari.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's intelligence correspondent Tom Gjelten.

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Obama Taps Panetta To Head CIA

Leon Panetta testifies before the Senate Budget Committee in October 2007. i i

Leon Panetta, named as President-elect Barack Obama's choice to be CIA director, testifies before the Senate Budget Committee in October 2007. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Leon Panetta testifies before the Senate Budget Committee in October 2007.

Leon Panetta, named as President-elect Barack Obama's choice to be CIA director, testifies before the Senate Budget Committee in October 2007.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

President-elect Barack Obama will bring former Clinton administration official and federal budget expert Leon Panetta, 70, back to Washington to head the Central Intelligence Agency.

And the president-elect plans to fill out the second of the nation's top intelligence posts with a military man, retired Navy Adm. Dennis Blair. He will be director of national intelligence.

Lee Hamilton, who served as co-chairman of the Iraq Study Group and vice chairman of the 9/11 Commission, called Obama's choice of Panetta "superb" and said the former congressman is a seeker of consensus and is savvy in the ways of Washington.

"If confirmed, he would take over the helm of the CIA at a time when the intelligence community has been under fire, though I think they have made some progress in recent years," says Hamilton, a Democrat who served in Congress with Panetta and is now president and director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. "But the intelligence community has a lot of problems with public perception, and Leon is a very good communicator."

Panetta's perspective as an outsider, Hamilton says, is also needed. But, he added, "It will be hugely important that he have around him intelligence professionals."

Hamilton, who serves on the CIA Director's Economic Intelligence Advisory panel, said that of Panetta's priorities, transparency should be at or near the top of the list.

"I understand that's not easy in the secret business of intelligence," he said, "but restoring confidence in the agency is important." And nowhere is it more important than on Capitol Hill, he says, where Panetta has long relationships.

But others criticized the choice of Panetta, who lacks experience in the intelligence field. Dianne Feinstein, the incoming chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee and a fellow Democrat, released a statement Monday night saying she had not been briefed about the choice and suggesting she was not happy about it.

'A Really, Really Interesting Pick'

Panetta has been advising the Obama camp during the transition and had been mentioned as a possible high-level appointee. Still, his pick as CIA chief came as a surprise.

In turning to Panetta, a respected Democrat and former eight-term California congressman, Obama again tapped for his inner circle a top Clinton adviser and confidant. Panetta is seen as an experienced Washington hand with no apparent links to the intelligence community.

He returned to California in the late 1990s and founded the Leon and Sylvia Panetta Institute for Public Policy.

"This is a really, really interesting pick," says Samuel Popkin, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego. "Obama is putting someone in there who has been the head of the [Office of Management and Budget], the chief of staff to a president and an important congressman.

"This is a fascinating attempt to see if you can reconcile the interests of the CIA, in protecting the way they do business, with Congress' sometimes competing interests."

Popkin says Panetta may serve as an antidote for the lack of transparency that has marked the way Washington and the intelligence agencies have conducted business in recent years.

From California To Washington And Back

Panetta, a native of Monterey, Calif., and the son of Italian immigrant parents, served as director of the Office of Management and Budget under President Clinton before being appointed his White House chief of staff in 1994.

While representing California's 16th District in Congress between 1977 and 1993, Panetta, known as an unflappable consensus-builder, was a key player on the House Budget Committee, which he chaired from 1989 to '93.

He was also instrumental in social policy initiatives. He authored the Hunger Prevention Act of 1988 and the Fair Employment Practices Resolution, which, for the first time, extended civil rights protections to U.S. House employees.

He continued that work after leaving Washington. The institute he founded with his wife, Sylvia, is based at California State University, Monterey Bay, which he helped establish on land once occupied by Fort Ord, an Army base.

Panetta graduated from Santa Clara University, where he also received his law degree. He first went to Washington in 1966 as a legislative assistant to Republican Sen. Thomas Kuchel, then the Senate minority whip. Panetta changed parties in 1971, saying the GOP was moving away from the center. He served in the Nixon administration in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare.

Blair had been prominently mentioned as a potential nominee for national intelligence director. He's most frequently described as a brainy, workaholic Asia expert and an adept leader of large organizations. Like Panetta, Blair also is close with the Clintons: He was a Rhodes Scholar with Bill Clinton.

A native of Maine, Blair speaks Russian and was a Naval Academy classmate of both Oliver North and Virginia Sen. Jim Webb. He was chief of the U.S. Pacific Command on Sept. 11, 2001.

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