Obama picks former Clinton chief of staff to head CIA

US President-elect Barack Obama has chosen Leon Panetta, former White House chief of staff under President Bill Clinton, to lead the Central Intelligence Agency, Democratic Party officials said.


AFP - US president-elect Barack Obama has chosen former White House chief of staff Leon Panetta to head the Central Intelligence Agency, a Democratic Party official told AFP Monday.

In turning to a political heavyweight with no direct background in intelligence, Obama appeared to be opting for someone who would bring fresh eyes and credibility to an agency battered by controversy over its conduct of the war on terrorism.

"Here is a guy who will be very credible with the Democrats in Congress and here's someone who brings not only an outsider's perspective but knows how the White House works," said James Lewis, an intelligence expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"He knows what presidents want and need. That's a plus," he said.

Panetta was former president Bill Clinton's chief of staff from 1994 to 1997, following a 16-year career as a lawmaker from California.

Although his expertise in the House of Represenatives and in the Clinton administration was in budgets and finance, observers say his political savvy and connections should make him a powerful CIA director.

His appointment will also help Obama reassure critics who worry that the leadership of the US intelligence community has been dominated in recent years by the US military.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, who will chair the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said she had not been informed about the appointment and was ambivalent about Panetta's qualifications for the job.

"I know nothing about this, other than what I've read," the California Democrat said in a statement.

"My position has consistently been that I believe the (CIA) is best-served by having an intelligence professional in charge at this time," she added.

Panetta will work under retired admiral Dennis Blair, Obama's choice to oversee the sprawling intelligence system as director of national intelligence.

Obama has not yet formally announced either appointment, but Democratic officials and transition aides have confirmed the picks on condition of anonymity.

A former commander of US forces in the Pacific from 1999 to 2002, Blair will be only the third director of national intelligence (DNI).

The position was created by Congress in 2004 after investigations revealed that turf-sensitive intelligence agencies failed to share information that might have averted the September 11 attacks. That failure was followed by US intelligence's fateful error on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

The DNI's main mission was to break down the barriers between the agencies, and make them operate more collaboratively.

"It'll be interesting to see how that relationship between Blair and Panetta develops," said Lewis, noting that Panetta's political clout as a former White House chief of staff outweighs that of his nominal boss.

"Panetta is a heavyweight, and he will be reporting to Blair," he said. "What does it say about the DNI position? In some ways Panetta would have been good for that job as well."

The current leaders of the US intelligence community are retired or active military officers who have worked together for years, come from similar backgrounds and have longstanding relationships, he said.

"Picking someone who is a civilian works against that fear of militarization. It helps to have somebody who is politically astute, and one thing you can say about Leon Panetta is that he is as astute politically as you can get."

If confirmed, Panetta will replace air force general Michael Hayden, who has led the CIA since 2006.

A key challenge for Panetta will be dealing with the fallout from the CIA's use of waterboarding and other techniques widely denounced as torture on detainees at secret prisons as part of the war on terror.

John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.Org, a non-partisan research group, said Panetta's task will be "to keep the agency out of the news."

"You need somebody who can stand up and say: 'Don’t worry everything is under control, trust me.'"

Having a politically-connected CIA director will help with "the process of deconstructing the Bush policies," said Lewis.

At the CIA, he said, "they'll be watching to see what he says on the torture issue. Will he be pro-witch hunt or will he be able to defend his guys. And if he defends them, they'll love him."

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning