Senate Grumbles About Panetta Pick

President-elect Barack Obama is naming Leon Panetta, a former congressman from California and chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, to be CIA director. Obama also has picked retired Navy Admiral Dennis Blair to be director of national intelligence, overseeing all the nation's spy agencies, a Democratic official said.

The selection pairs a top military man with a quintessential Washington insider - but that combination appeared to irk some key Senate Democrats, who expressed concern that Panetta does not have an intelligence background. “My position has consistently been that I believe the agency is best-served by having an intelligence professional in charge at this time,” said California Sen. Diane Feinstein, who will oversee Panetta's confirmation as chair of the Select Committee on Intelligence.

Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.), the vice chairman of the committee, also questioned the choice of Panetta. “Job number one at the CIA is to track down and stop terrorists. In a post-9-11 world, intelligence experience would seem to be a prerequisite for the job of CIA Director. While I will reserve final judgment on President-elect Obama’s nomination for the leader of our terror-fighting agency, I will be looking hard at Panetta’s intelligence expertise and qualifications."

The surprise choice of Panetta brings one of the more colorful - and quotable - Clinton administration figures back to Washington in one of the nation’s most sensitive jobs.

But Panetta also will have the likely support of a generation of Washington insiders who know him as an affable and competent chair of the House Budget Committee, budget director during the Clinton administration and the chief of staff who finally brought a semblance of order to an unruly Clinton White House.

Former Indiana Rep. Lee Hamilton said that while Panetta isn’t from the traditional world of intelligence, he dealt with the issue on a daily basis as chief of staff and as a member of the Iraq Study Group.

In the last decade, the CIA’s products haven’t been received with confidence because of 9-11 and the Iraq War, but the Bush administration has begun making improvements in the quality of intelligence, Hamilton said.

“Panetta’s job will be to continue that progress,” Hamilton said, adding that he will also bring extensive managerial skills to the job that has a huge budget and thousands of employees. “I think he’s a superb choice.”

“Leon Panetta is a smart, savvy DC veteran and a strong choice to lead the CIA," said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.)


David Rothkopf, a former Clinton administration official, said Panetta and Blair will make a “formidable” team and makes a clean break with controversial Bush-era policies. “It’s very, very important to them to say this is a new chapter,” he said.

The nation’s two top intelligence posts were the two biggest appointments left to be made by the president-elect, along with a replacement for New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who withdrew as the Obama's choice for commerce secretary.

An official said the timing of the joint announcement had not been decided.

Obama had struggled to fill both jobs, having to turn to second choices in both cases.

Panetta, 71, is currently director of the Leon & Sylvia Panetta Institute for Public Policy at California State University, Monterey Bay.

Panetta told the Monterey County Herald in November that had been consulting with top Obama advisers about White House appointments, but said he was unlikely to be tapped for a post.

"You can see a lot of chess pieces moving around,” Panetta said.

Before retiring in 2002, Blair was commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Command.

From Blair’s biography: “During his 34-year Navy career, Admiral Blair served on guided missile destroyers in both the Atlantic and Pcific fleets and commanded the Kitty Hawk Battle Group. Ashore, he served as Director of the Joint Staff and as the first Associate Director of Central Intelligence for Military Support at the CIA. He has also served in budget and policy positions on the National Security Council and several major Navy staffs. A 1968 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, Admiral Blair earned a master’s degree in History and Languages from Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar, and served as a White House Fellow at the Department of Housing and Urban Development.”

From Panetta’s biography: “From 1989 to 1993, Panetta was chairman of the House Committee on the Budget. He also served as a member of that committee from 1979 to 1985. … Panetta left Congress in 1993, at the beginning of his ninth term, to become Director of the Office of Management and Budget for the incoming Clinton administration. Panetta was appointed Chief of Staff to President Clinton on July 17, 1994, and served in that position until January 20, 1997.”
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