President-elect Barack Obama’s reported choice of Leon Panetta, a former congressman and White House chief of staff, to head the Central Intelligence Agency has provoked sharp criticism from senior Democrats whom the White House will need to gain his confirmation.
The Obama transition team did not return phone calls seeking comment on the nomination, which was confirmed by other Democrats and intelligence officials.
But the incoming chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Dianne Feinstein - like Mr. Panetta, a California Democrat - issued a statement saying “my position has consistently been that I believe the agency is best served by having an intelligence professional in charge at this time.”
An aide to the current chairman of the committee, Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, West Virginia Democrat, said his boss had similar concerns.
“He believes the director of the CIA needs to have significant intelligence experience,” the aide said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. “He has also had the long-held belief that the director of the CIA and senior intelligence officials in general need to not be from the political world.”
The criticism over the choice of Mr. Panetta follows nearly universal praise for Mr. Obama’s earlier major appointments and highlights the president-elect’s first bumpy patch.
Mr. Obama recently has been criticized from the left for picking pastor Rick Warren, an opponent of abortion rights, to deliver the invocation at the inauguration. On Sunday, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson withdrew as the nominee for commerce secretary because of a corruption investigation. Questions also have been raised about the role of Mr. Obama’s choice for attorney general, Eric Holder, in approving pardons at the end of the Clinton administration.
Mr. Panetta, 70, served in the House from 1977 to 1993 but was not a member of the intelligence committee. From 1993 to 1994, he ran the Office of Management and Budget. He was White House chief of staff from 1994 to 1997. He served in 2006 on the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, which recommended major changes in U.S. policy toward Iraq and the Middle East. If he is nominated and confirmed, he will be the oldest CIA director in the agency’s history.
Study group co-Chairman Lee H. Hamilton, president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a longtime colleague of Mr. Panetta’s in the House, praised the selection as “a superb appointment. I don’t know anyone with broader experience in both legislative and executive branches.”
Mr. Hamilton, a Democrat, added that Mr. Panetta is “highly intelligent, very constructive and searches for common ground.” As White House chief of staff, Mr. Panetta received intelligence briefings along with the president and participated in detailed policymaking concerning the intelligence community.
Mr. Obama campaigned for the presidency as a fierce critic of the Bush administration’s detention and interrogation policies - practices that fall today largely to the CIA and allied intelligence services. In recent weeks, members of the CIA have quietly campaigned to keep the current director, Gen. Michael V. Hayden, or his deputy, Stephen Kappes, a veteran agency official who was fired by Director Porter J. Goss and reinstated when Mr. Goss retired.
A former intelligence official, who asked not to be named, said Mr. Obama had limited choices because he did not want someone tainted by the uproar over harsh interrogation methods used against detainees after the Sept. 11 attacks.
The Obama transition team ran into snags when press reports surfaced that CIA veteran John Brennan would be selected to head the agency. Many liberal bloggers pilloried the pick, claiming Mr. Brennan, who advised Mr. Obama during the campaign, played a role in conceiving harsh interrogation policies as deputy executive director of the CIA in the current administration’s first term. He withdrew his name at the end of November from consideration for the post.
Mr. Panetta should not face opposition from that quarter.
He wrote in the Washington Monthly last year that “those who support torture may believe that we can abuse captives in certain select circumstances and still be true to our values. But that is a false compromise. We either believe in the dignity of the individual, the rule of law, and the prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, or we don’t. There is no middle ground.”
Michael Scheuer, the CIA’s former chief of the unit tracking al Qaeda, testified in 2007 to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs that in 1995 he launched a program to send al Qaeda operatives to third countries known to be human rights abusers.
Reaction from Republican lawmakers to the choice of Mr. Panetta was muted. A senior aide to the ranking Republican on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Jamal Ware, said his boss, Rep. Peter Hoekstra, Michigan Republican, welcomed change at the CIA.
“Mr. Hoekstra has called for a new direction and change in the culture at CIA for some time. Whether it’s Mr. Panetta or someone else, it is important that the agency move in a new direction,” Mr. Ware said.
Mr. Panetta would join a centrist national security team dominated by people associated with the Clinton administration. The expected nominee for national director of intelligence, Adm. Dennis Blair, served under President Clinton as the head of Pacific Command.
A former officer in the CIA’s clandestine service, Reuel Marc Gerecht, said it does not matter much whether the director is a political choice or is culled from the agency’s own career ranks.
“First and foremost, people tend to overestimate what any director of the Central Intelligence Agency can do concerning reform and restructuring the institution,” he said. “The institution more or less runs itself. This notion that leadership will somehow change the agency and particularly the clandestine service is a bit much.”