President-elect Barack Obama is defending his unexpected CIA nominee Leon Panetta, who faced a surge of skepticism in Congress on Tuesday but is not expected to draw serious opposition when his confirmation reaches the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Obama promised that his intelligence team — led by Panetta and retired Adm. Dennis Blair, the nominee for national intelligence director — will break with Bush administration practices that he said tarnished U.S. intelligence agencies and American foreign policy.
Word of Panetta's selection Monday caught key senators by surprise — notably California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, the incoming Intelligence Committee chairwoman.
Obama didn't consult either Feinstein or Sen. John D. Rockefeller, the outgoing chairman, about his unusual choice — something a committee official said should have happened both for protocol and politics. Both Feinstein and Rockefeller also questioned Panetta's lack of intelligence-gathering experience.
Obama called Feinstein and apologized Tuesday, her office confirmed. In a separate statement, Feinstein noted that she had been called by both Obama and Vice President-elect Joe Biden, but she expressed no support for Panetta, a fellow California political veteran.
"They have explained to me the reasons why they believe Leon Panetta is the best candidate for CIA director," Feinstein said, adding only that she looked forward to "speaking with Mr. Panetta about the critical issues facing the intelligence community and his plans to address them."
Meeting with reporters in the U.S. Capitol Tuesday, Biden said the Obama team made a "mistake" in not consulting with top Senate officials before choosing Panetta. Biden said the lapse was a process mistake, but he praised the selection of Panetta, calling the Californian a "strong figure" for the CIA who would "take it on a new path."
Senate Democrats on Tuesday were reluctant to identify any missteps and openly challenge their former colleague's handling of the Panetta nomination. At the same time, members of the Intelligence Committee — still smarting from their limited access during Bush's tenure — seemed to want to put the incoming administration on notice that they want to be kept in the loop.
"He is the president. He is entitled to make these decisions," said Sen. Evan Bayh, of Obama. But having said that, Bayh later joked, "call me next time."
Obama was quick to brush off concerns voiced by Feinstein and Rockefeller about Panetta's lack of intelligence experience. Instead, Obama focused on Panetta's stints as an administrator during the Clinton administration, when he served as budget director and later as White House chief of staff.
"I have the utmost respect for Leon Panetta," Obama said Tuesday. "I think that he is one of the finest public servants that we've had. He brings extraordinary management skills, great political savvy, an impeccable record of integrity. As chief of staff to the president, he is somebody who obviously was fully versed in international affairs crisis management, and had to evaluate intelligence consistently on a day-to-day basis."
"We are putting together a top-notch intelligence team" that will "ensure that I get the best possible intelligence, unvarnished," he added.
Obama said Americans will 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, the intelligence agencies, as well as U.S. foreign policy."
He also praised the intelligence officers working at the CIA and in other agencies, calling them "outstanding." The comment appears to be Obama's signal that he is drawing a line between controversial Bush policies, such as harsh interrogations, extraordinary rendition, secret prisons, and warrantless wiretapping, and the agencies he directed to carry them out.
Former CIA director John McLaughlin told The Associated Press from London Monday that he supported Panetta's nomination because of his management experience, judgment and understanding of Washington, which he called excellent qualities for a CIA director.
"It's important that he turn to the professionals in the building and not show up with a coterie of people aiming to turn the place upside down — but I think he'll be smart enough to avoid that pitfall," McLaughlin said.
Panetta is not an obvious choice for the CIA job. Despite his years in Congress and in White House posts, Panetta has no intelligence gathering or analysis experience.
Hours after Panetta's name surfaced Monday, Feinstein expressed pointed skepticism about Panetta's qualifications. So did Missouri Sen. Kit Bond, the ranking Republican on the committee.
Feinstein was far more supportive of Obama's selection of Blair to be national intelligence director and promised in a statement issued Tuesday to get him a swift confirmation hearing and vote.
Bayh said he has not spoken with anyone on Obama's transition team about Panetta's nomination. But he said he planned to call Panetta and recommend that the former politico, if confirmed, keep Steve Kappes as deputy director of the CIA. Panetta can push for fresh policy, while Kappes can provide the experience, Bayh said.