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Obama Puts Panetta In Unfamiliar Waters

In choosing Leon Panetta to head the CIA, President-elect Obama is taking one of the capital's most familiar faces and thrusting him into a starkly unfamiliar role.

And, after two months of appointments whose political logic was obvious to the naked eye, Obama has left much of political Washington playing mind-reader about the rationale behind his most head-scratching appointment to date.

Did the appointment of Panetta — a 70-year-old veteran of the Democratic establishment with a blue-chip name but no record of fresh thinking about intelligence issues — indicate a dearth of creativity and options within the Obama team as time runs out on the transition?

Or was the selection of a prominent outsider intended as a deliberate shove against the intelligence insiders at Langley-a signal that the new president is ready to play rough to ensure that the vast and often unruly bureaucracy he will inherit on Jan. 20 is at his heel and not his throat?

At first blush, Panetta does indeed look like any-port-in-a-storm selection. Obama's apparent first choice was John Brennan, a former CIA official who had called for reforming the agency, but who had also worked on the Bush Administration's controversial interrogation programs and ran afoul of Obama's need to show he is making a sharp break from Bush on the torture issue.

The choice drew criticism from some surprising sources-like Obama's former Democratic Senate colleagues, Dianne Feinstein and Jay Rockefeller, who dourly noted Panetta's lack of background at the agency.

And it got equally praise from some equally surprising quarters Obama probably doesn't care much about-such as neoconservative hawks Richard Perle and Douglas Feith.

Panetta is "a very smart, very capable guy with a lot of experience - I think he's the right sort of person to take a shot at improving the place," said Perle, an agency critic who, as chairman of President Bush's Defense Policy Board, was an architect of the Iraq war, and called the quality of the CIA's analysis "appalling."

"It's going to take somebody from outside to right that ship, if it can be done," Perle said.

Feith said the appointment could suggest that Obama had learned the lesson of Bush's first term, in which CIA Director George Tenet - a Clinton holdover - was a bitter rival to some in the White House.

"One possible implication of appointing somebody from the outside is that the president recognizes that there are serious problems at the CIA and he wants somebody who is not a part of those problems," said Feith, who was Bush's Undersecretary of Defense for Policy.

Though it caught the capital by surprise-Feinstein's statement observed crabbily that no one had consulted her-Panetta is not bereft of relevant background. As a first-term chief of staff for Bill Clinton-he came to the job after nearly two decades in Congress and a stint as budget director-Panetta had daily interaction to the intelligence agency and access to its secrets. He was also an appointee to the 9-11 commission.

As a young man working in the Nixon administration's Health, Education and Welfare Department, he clashed with the White House over his determination to enforce civil rights policies, later resigning.

But his days as a bureaucratic insurgent and china-breaker were short-lived. For most of his career, Panetta has been a process-oriented, consensus-building figure. Temperamentally, he hardly seems likely to wage war against the CIA bureaucracy, as some agency critics believe is necessary to force reform.

Panetta is also supremely a figure of Washington, even as he moved back to his family's California walnut farm near Monterey. A favorite of television bookers, he'll be in a remote studio by 4 a.m. to do morning live shots. He regularly plays host to public officials and political journalists alike with invitations to speak at the Leon and Sylvia Panetta Institute for Public Policy.

The choice "assumes that an outsider can hit the ground running to make changes in the most inside world that exists," said Amy Zegart, an intelligence expert at the University of California Los Angeles. She warned that the move "could turn out to be Obama's gays-in-the-military moment," referring to a debacle of President Bill Clinton's first month in office.

"He has satisfied the left-wing of his party, and at the same time potentially alienated a critical branch of our national security establishment," Zegart said.

Brennan would not have had that problem. But Obama turned from Brennan after critics noted his role in the interrogation programs - drawing praise from torture foes. But the move drew jitters from members of the intelligence community who worry that the Justice Department could indict CIA case officers for torture.

"Seems that their first instinct was to appoint an insider but after they allowed the blogs. to kill Brennan, they made it very hard to do so," said Mark Lowenthal, a former senior CIA official who heads the Intelligence and Security Academy, in an email, adding that he was unsure how the appointment would be received inside the intelligence community.

On Monday, Obama announced the appointment of a leading anti-torture lawyer, Dawn Johnsen, to head his Office of Legal Council, and later in the day word of Panetta's impending nomination leaked.

"It's a perfect pick," said former Indiana congressman Tim Roemer, a member of the 9/11 Commission. "Whoever takes this job is going to have to deal with Guantanamo Bay, torture, rendition, what to do about case officers - difficult issues - and [Panetta] has good relations with Capitol Hill on both sides of the aisle, a steady hand and good managerial expertise."

"He's going to watch Obama's back at a place that's full of stilettos," wrote Michael Ledeen, a conservative and Iraq War backer, on the National Review website.

The question Feinstein, Senator Jay Rockefeller, and others raised Monday was whether Panetta's experience - in heavyweight, executive branch jobs with top security clearances - would counterbalance his relative inexperience with the nuts and bolts of intelligence-gathering and operations.

Some of that will depend on his conduct, said Brent Durbin, a fellow at Stanford's Center for International Security and Cooperation who studies the CIA.

"There are outsiders and then there are outsiders," he said in an email, noting that former CIA Director Porter Goss had been a former CIA operative and intelligence committee chairman, but that his "partisanship, harsh critiques of the Agency, and heavy-handed approach to leadership made him a distinct outsider to many at CIA."

"Panetta doesn't have the intel background, and his past as a civil rights attorney might raise some eyebrows, but foremost he's a solid bureaucrat with real White House and budget experience, both of which should serve the Agency well."

Panetta could "represent the agency to the WH, DNI, and public in a way that suggests a shift away from the perceived CIA abuses and intel[ligence] politicization under Bush," he said.

UCLA's Zegart, however, echoed the legislators' warnings that Panetta could be unable to manage the agency.

"If you really want to make change at the CIA the way to do it is to appoint an insider who knows where the problems are - not an outsider who's never done intelligence before," she said.

Panetta's allies, though, say he's faced tougher management challenges.

"People with sharper teeth and bigger appetites have not been able to devour Leon Panetta in the past," said former Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey.

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