As every previous director could attest, succeeding at the helm at the Central Intelligence Agency requires an uneasy balance: being firm enough to impose a White House agenda without inciting a revolt, while winning allegiance at the agency without being co-opted by its bureaucracy.
For Leon E. Panetta, President-elect Barack Obama’s choice for the job, the task is made even more difficult because of intense pressure on Mr. Obama from members of Congress and outside groups to hold agency officials accountable for counterterrorism policies in which the C.I.A. played a leading role.
Aides to Mr. Obama say they have no intention of directing Mr. Panetta to oust C.I.A. officials who played a role in the agency’s secret interrogation and detention program. Instead, they say, the new administration will focus on reversing the rules that authorized the C.I.A. to carry out aggressive interrogations.
Indeed, in deciding to retain Stephen R. Kappes as the agency’s second-ranking official, Mr. Obama will keep in place an official who had direct oversight of the agency’s network of secret prisons when he held in succession the top two jobs in the C.I.A.’s clandestine service from 2002 to 2004.
Still, the selection of Mr. Panetta has put some of the C.I.A.’s rank and file into a defensive crouch, in part because Mr. Panetta is hardly alone among senior officials being installed by Mr. Obama to have said that the agency’s interrogation program amounted to torture.
The last time a Democratic president came to power as an outspoken critic of the C.I.A., it was Jimmy Carter, who in selecting Adm. Stansfield M. Turner to lead the agency chose some someone who shared his dismal view of America’s spy service.
Admiral Turner ultimately left the C.I.A. having made little progress on his goal of weaning the agency off its attachment to foreign adventures, and he admitted in later years that he had been outmaneuvered by a bureaucracy that often treats outsiders like a hostile virus.
Mr. Panetta, 70, is a former White House chief of staff with limited direct experience in the intelligence world.
On the day he walks into his seventh-floor office, if confirmed by the Senate, Mr. Panetta will be managing employees who are under federal investigation for participating in the destruction of videotapes recording the interrogations of two prisoners suspected of being members of Al Qaeda. The prosecutor in the case, John H. Durham, recently told a federal judge that he would need until the end of February to interview witnesses as he considers whether to bring criminal charges in the case.
Beyond that inquiry, Mr. Panetta is facing the prospect that Democratic lawmakers might establish an independent commission tasked with looking into the Bush administration’s counterterrorism policies, including the roles played by C.I.A. employees.
The number of employees who would be targets of such a commission is relatively small, and many within the agency were never comfortable with C.I.A. officers acting as jailers. Still, some experts said any public fact-finding inquiry could be perceived within the C.I.A. as a witch hunt.
“If Panetta starts trying to feed people to that commission, his tenure at C.I.A. will be over,” said Mark M. Lowenthal, a former senior C.I.A. official and an adjunct professor at Columbia University.
“If it happens, C.I.A. people are not going to start plotting against the president, but they are going to withdraw from taking risks, and then the C.I.A. becomes useless to the president,” Mr. Lowenthal said.
Previous C.I.A. directors have tried various tactics to keep on the good side of the agency’s rank and file, especially members of the powerful clandestine branch.
George J. Tenet chose a prominent spot at the agency’s headquarters to hang a portrait of Richard Helms, a C.I.A. director legendary for his passion for covert activities. Gen. Michael V. Hayden, the current director, who inherited an agency troubled by low morale and turmoil, has been a vigorous cheerleader for an aggressive clandestine service. Comparing the laws that bind C.I.A. operations to the white lines of a football field, he has often remarked that he wants his officers operating so close to legal boundaries that they have “chalk on their cleats.”
Mr. Panetta is not known to be particularly close to Mr. Obama, but he does have Mr. Obama’s ear. At an agency that feels constantly under siege, Mr. Panetta could become a popular director if he is able to raise the C.I.A.’s stature against the Pentagon and other intelligence agencies.
Past C.I.A. directors like R. James Woolsey, President Bill Clinton’s first director of central intelligence, failed on that front. Mr. Woolsey was so rarely asked into the Oval Office that he once joked that the small plane that crashed on the White House lawn in 1994 was just him trying to get a meeting with the president.
At the same time, Mr. Panetta will have an obstacle between him and the president that Mr. Woolsey never had. The C.I.A. is no longer the lodestar in the constellation of American intelligence agencies, and Mr. Panetta will answer to Adm. Dennis C. Blair, Mr. Obama’s choice to be director of national intelligence.