Image: Leon Panetta
Mike Theiler  /  AFP - Getty Images file
Former Clinton Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta is President-elect Barack Obama's selection to take over the CIA.
updated 1/5/2009 5:35:21 PM ET 2009-01-05T22:35:21

President-elect Barack Obama's decision to fill the nation's top intelligence jobs with two men short on direct experience in intelligence gathering surprised the spy community and signaled the Democrat's intention for a clean break from Bush administration policies.

Former Clinton White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta, a longtime congressional veteran and administrative expert, is being tapped to head the CIA. Retired Adm. Dennis Blair is Obama's choice to be director of national intelligence, a selection expected for weeks, according to two Democrats who spoke on condition of anonymity because Obama has not officially announced the choices.

The Obama transition team's long delay in selecting new CIA and national intelligence directors is a reflection of the complicated demands of the jobs and Obama's own policies and priorities.

The search for Obama's new CIA chief had been stalled since November, when John Brennan, Obama's transition intelligence adviser, abruptly withdrew his name from consideration. Brennan said his potential nomination had sparked outrage among civil rights and human rights groups, who argued that he had not been outspoken enough in his condemnation of President George W. Bush's policies.

Obama had hoped to send an unequivocal message that controversial administration policies approving harsh interrogations, waterboarding and extraordinary renditions — the secret transfer of prisoners to other governments with a history of torture — and warrantless wiretapping are over, said several officials.

But despite an internal list of former and current CIA officials who had impressive administrative credentials, all either worked in intelligence during the Bush administration's development of controversial policies on interrogation and torture or earlier, during the months leading up to the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

A former senior CIA official who advises Obama defended the surprise choice of Panetta, who has not direct intelligence experience beyond a two-year stint in the mid-1960s as a U.S. Army lieutenant. The official said Panetta had been a consumer of CIA intelligence when he was at the White House.

Video: Panetta for CIA Neither Panetta nor Blair are tainted by associations with Bush administration policies, in large part because they both come from outside the intelligence world.

Blair was posted at the CIA for about a year.

Panetta was director of the Office of Management and Budget and a longtime congressman from California. As White House Chief of Staff during the Clinton administration, he spearheaded the internal effort to find a new CIA chief that led to the selection of John Deutsch.

Panetta served on the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan panel that released a report at the end of 2006 with dozens of recommendations for reversing course in the war.

With his wife, Sylvia, Panetta currently directs the Leon & Sylvia Panetta Institute for Public Policy, based at California State University, Monterey Bay. The university he helped establish is on the site of the former U.S. Army base, Fort Ord.

Obama's selection of Blair, a former Pacific Command chief, had been expected.

Blair served in the Navy for 34 years and was chief of the U.S. Pacific Command during the Sept. 11 attacks. Blair also is a China expert, and he was an associate director for military support at the CIA.

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