President-elect Obama's decision to fill the nation's top intelligence jobs with two men short on direct experience in intelligence gathering surprised the spy community and signaled the Democrat's intention for a clean break from Bush administration policies.
WASHINGTON — President-elect Obama’s decision to fill the nation’s top intelligence jobs with two men short on direct experience in intelligence gathering surprised the spy community and signaled the Democrat’s intention for a clean break from Bush administration policies.
Former Clinton White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta, an eight-term congressional veteran and administrative expert, is being tapped to head the CIA. Retired Adm. Dennis Blair is Obama’s choice to be director of national intelligence, a selection expected for weeks, according to two Democrats who spoke on condition of anonymity because Obama has not officially announced the choices.
The Obama transition team’s long delay in selecting CIA and national- intelligence directors is a reflection of the complicated demands of the jobs and Obama’s own policies and priorities.
Obama is sending an unequivocal message that controversial administration policies approving harsh interrogations, waterboarding and extraordinary renditions — the secret transfer of prisoners to other governments with a history of torture — and warrantless wiretapping are over, several officials said.
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The search for Obama’s new CIA chief had been stalled since November, when John Brennan, Obama’s transition intelligence adviser, abruptly withdrew his name from consideration. Brennan said his potential nomination had sparked outrage among civil-rights and human-rights groups, who argued he had not been outspoken enough in his condemnation of President Bush’s policies.
And despite an internal list of former and current CIA officials who had impressive administrative credentials, all either worked in intelligence during the Bush administration’s development of controversial policies on interrogation and torture or earlier, during the months leading up to the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
Neither Panetta nor Blair are tainted by associations with Bush administration policies, in large part because they both come from outside the intelligence world. Blair was posted at the CIA for about a year.
Panetta could face tough questions at his nomination hearing about his background in intelligence. California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who will chair the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Monday she was surprised by the pick, and was neither informed nor consulted.
“I know nothing about this, other than what I’ve read,” she said. “My position has consistently been that I believe the agency is best served by having an intelligence professional in charge at this time.”
A former senior CIA official who advises Obama defended the surprise choice of Panetta, who has no direct intelligence experience beyond a two-year stint in the mid-1960s as a U.S. Army lieutenant. The official said Panetta had been a consumer of CIA intelligence when he was at the White House. He said he was selected for his administrative, management and political skills, which will allow him both to control and advocate for the agency.
He said Panetta will rely on the expertise of CIA officers to balance his lack of personal intelligence experience.
“I’m at a loss”
Veterans of the CIA were caught off guard by the selection.
“I’m at a loss,” said Robert Grenier, a former director of the CIA’s counterterrorism center and 27-year veteran of the agency who now is managing director of Kroll, a security consulting company.
The lack of intelligence experience puts Panetta at “a tremendous disadvantage,” Grenier told The Associated Press.
“Intelligence, by its very nature, is an esoteric world. And right now the agency is confronted with numerous pressing challenges overseas, and to have no background is a serious deficit. I don’t say that he can’t succeed. It may [be] that he can compensate for the obvious deficit.”
John Hamre, the president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, served with Panetta during the Clinton administration. He said Panetta’s experience as a former Cabinet member will help elevate the CIA’s status inside the White House. The CIA director was once the president’s main intelligence adviser. That role shifted in 2004 to the national intelligence director.
Blair and Panetta would replace retired Adm. Mike McConnell and former Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden, respectively. Both men had said they would stay in their positions if asked.
Blair, 61, is a 34-year Navy veteran who was head of the U.S. Pacific Command after the Sept. 11 attacks. He oversaw operations across more than 100 million square miles and has been credited by some for developing the staff and strategy to weaken Islamic insurgents in the Philippines.