In choosing Leon E. Panetta to be the next CIA director, President-elect Barack Obama appears to have concluded that a spy chief who understands politics may be better equipped to carry out the incoming administration’s national security agenda than one who understands espionage.
The surprise selection of Panetta, a former California congressman and chief of staff to President Clinton, would give Obama a CIA director with loyalty to the White House and an experienced managerial hand to steer the administration away from potential intelligence scandals.
But it runs the risk of putting an outsider at the helm of the CIA just as it seems to be regaining its footing after years of criticism over intelligence failures leading up to the Sept. 11 attacks and the Iraq war, and for aggressive interrogation tactics used in their aftermath.
If confirmed by the Senate, Panetta, 70, would be among the few directors in agency history with no experience at one of the nation’s spy services.
Largely for that reason, Panetta’s selection was met with criticism on Capitol Hill.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who this week begins her tenure as the first female head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said she was not consulted on the choice and indicated she might oppose it.
“I was not informed about the selection of Leon Panetta to be the CIA director,” Feinstein 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 senior aide to Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), the outgoing chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Rockefeller “would have concerns” about a Panetta nomination.
Rockefeller “thinks very highly of Panetta,” the aide said. “But he’s puzzled by the selection. He has concerns because he has always believed that the director of CIA needs to be someone with significant operational intelligence experience and someone outside the political realm.”
But the nomination was praised by others who see Panetta as an outsider who can bring accountability and reform to an agency accused of human rights abuses.
“We need the CIA to collect reliable, actionable intelligence in ways that respect American values and honor the Constitution,” said Rep. Rush D. Holt (D-N.J.), chairman of a House Intelligence Committee oversight panel.
Panetta would join a CIA trying to stay abreast of the demands of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the pursuit of Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.
The Obama team had struggled to settle on a CIA candidate after passing over former high-ranking agency official John Brennan in November, largely because he was seen as too closely tied to the controversial policies of the Bush administration.
Panetta would not have complete control over the agency. He would report to retired Navy Adm. Dennis C. Blair, who was picked by Obama last month to serve as the director of national intelligence, a position created in 2004 to oversee the operations of the CIA and the 15 other agencies that make up the U.S. intelligence community.
Unlike Panetta, Blair has a long track record in national security matters. He held a series of high-level defense posts, including overseeing U.S. military operations in the Pacific. He also served a year at the CIA as the agency’s military liaison.
How Blair and Panetta work together could be crucial to the operation of the intelligence community under Obama.
At the CIA, Panetta would face the difficult task of leading an agency with a history of hostility toward outsiders.
Some longtime officials saw the nomination as a signal that Obama was seeking complete political control and feared it spelled a further reduction in the CIA’s influence.
The agency, with nearly 20,000 employees around the globe, has seen its role reduced dramatically in recent years in the reshuffling of the intelligence community. CIA insiders have feared the trend will continue under Obama.
As White House chief of staff, Panetta was probably privy to the nation’s most sensitive intelligence matters.
He also served on the Iraq Study Group, a panel of experts assembled to advise the Bush administration on the war in Iraq.
Nonetheless, previous CIA directors who arrived as outsiders had troubled tenures and often left prematurely amid internal opposition. Among them were John M. Deutch, a former Defense Department official who served as director in 1995-96.
If he gets the job, Panetta would probably be charged with reining in controversial programs approved by President Bush, including a secret network of CIA prisons, the transfer of detainees to countries known to engage in torture, and the use of harsh interrogation methods.
Panetta, a son of Italian immigrants who worked on his family’s farm in Carmel Valley, has run the Leon and Sylvia Panetta Institute for Public Policy since returning to private life. He served as Clinton’s chief of staff for 2 1/2 years.
Panetta started in Washington in 1966 as an assistant to Republican Sen. Thomas Kuchel of California. He also worked at the Department of Health, Education and Welfare and ran the U.S. Office for Civil Rights, later returning to California to practice law.
He was elected to Congress in 1976, representing the then-16th Congressional District until 1993, and served as chairman of the House Budget Committee. He left Congress to become director of the Office of Management and Budget under Clinton.
Panetta left the Clinton administration after the president’s 1996 reelection.
Returning to California, he considered running for governor, but was quickly caught up in the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal, as well as controversies over White House fundraising, Lincoln Bedroom sleepovers and illegal foreign campaign donations. Lewinsky once worked as an intern in Panetta’s office.
Panetta’s links to the controversies were tangential but politically damaging. He also had few resources to run for governor. And after a career spent in Washington, he enjoyed little name recognition outside his former congressional district.
Panetta would join other leading players from the Clinton administration on the Obama team, including the president-elect’s incoming chief of staff, former Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois.
Times staff writer Mark Z. Barabak in San Francisco contributed to this report.