WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President-elect Barack Obama gave a strong defense on Tuesday of his choice to lead the CIA, Leon Panetta, in the face of criticism that Panetta lacks experience on intelligence matters.
Two senior Democrats, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein and West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller, raised questions on Monday about Panetta’s limited intelligence expertise after word leaked out that Panetta had been picked by Obama for CIA.
“I have the utmost respect for Leon Panetta,” Obama told reporters when asked about the criticism of Panetta. “He brings extraordinary management skills, great political savvy, an impeccable record of integrity.”
Panetta, 70, is a former White House chief of staff for President Bill Clinton and was a well-regarded member of Congress from California.
But news that he would be nominated to lead the CIA raised eyebrows around Washington, where officials are more accustomed to intelligence professionals at the helm of the spy agency.
Democratic officials later said that Obama spoke on Tuesday to Feinstein and Rockefeller about intelligence issues.
The president-elect had “very good conversations” with the two senators, according to an Obama aide. “They shared views about the future direction of intelligence and their desire to consult closely on these issues,” said the aide, who gave no other details.
Feinstein said Vice President-elect Joe Biden also contacted her to lobby for the Panetta pick. “I look forward to speaking with Mr. Panetta about the critical issues facing the intelligence community and his plans to address them,” she said.
Biden, a veteran Democratic senator from Delaware, was quoted by the Huffington Post as saying Obama had made a mistake by not consulting Feinstein on the Panetta choice.
Obama’s formal announcement on Panetta could come as early as this week. The president-elect is also expected to announce that he has selected retired Navy Adm. Dennis Blair to become the overall director of national intelligence.
When the news on Panetta’s likely appointment broke on Monday, Feinstein, who will be chair of the Senate intelligence committee, issued a statement saying she had not been informed of the decision and felt the CIA would be “best-served by having an intelligence professional in charge at this time.”
The comment suggested that Panetta could be in for a potentially difficult Senate confirmation hearing, since Feinstein’s committee will preside over the session.
The chairman of the House of Representatives intelligence committee, Democrat Silvestre Reyes of Texas, endorsed Panetta as highly qualified and a good coalition-builder. If Obama formally names him, “I look forward to his quick confirmation,” Reyes said in a statement.
In any event, Obama made clear he would not be backing down from picking Panetta.
He said Panetta, as White House chief of staff, was fully versed in international affairs and crisis management and had to evaluate intelligence on a daily basis.
Obama also spoke to concerns some Democrats have expressed about ensuring the intelligence community provides decision-makers unvarnished intelligence and does not engage in harsh interrogation measures of terrorism suspects.
He said he wanted an intelligence community that is “no longer geared toward telling the president what they think the president wants to hear, but what he needs to hear to make critical decisions to keep the American people safe.”
Intelligence officials have been accused of telling the Bush administration what it wanted to hear before the Iraq war.
“You’ll also see a team that is committed to breaking with some of the past practices and concerns that have, I think, tarnished the image of the agencies, as well as U.S. foreign policy,” Obama said.
Additional reporting by Caren Bohan