Barack Obama's aides have been phoning key members of Congress to apologize for not letting them know in advance that the president-elect had picked Leon Panetta as CIA director.
After news of the Panetta nomination leaked Monday afternoon, two Democratic senators deeply involved in intelligence issues indicated they were angry that the nomination had not been vetted with them. The incoming chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Diane Feinstein of California, appeared particularly irate. "I know nothing about this, other than what I've read," said Feinstein in a press statement. She added that in her view, "the agency is best-served by having an intelligence professional in charge at this time." Panetta, a former congressman from California, served as Bill Clinton's chief of staff. An aide to Sen. Jay Rockefeller, the Intelligence Committee's current chair, said Rockefeller was likewise irked by Obama's failure to consult Congress and was concerned about the absence of espionage expertise in Panetta's background.
Not all Democrats on the intelligence panel expressed reservations about Panetta. Sen. Ron Wyden, a senior committee member from Oregon, said Panetta is "a smart, savvy D.C. veteran and a strong choice to lead the CIA." Wyden said he planned to work with Panetta "to declassify much of the story of what went wrong at the CIA these last eight years, so that we can both take steps to make Americans safer and protect the values that define us as Americans."
Rep. Silvestre Reyes, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, offered his support in a statement released Tuesday afternoon: "I have known and worked with Leon Panetta and believe his selection would be a sensible choice that would provide strong leadership and effective management to the Central Intelligence Agency."
Republicans appeared to enjoy a moment of schadenfreude as Democrats squabbled over the CIA pick. Sen. Kit Bond of Missouri, the intel committee's top Republican, declared: "While I will reserve final judgment on President-elect Obama's nomination for the leader of our terror-fighting agency, I will be looking hard at Panetta's intelligence expertise and qualifications."
By Tuesday morning, people close to the controversy said that Obama aides had made efforts to apologize to both Sens. Feinstein and Rockefeller for failing to consult with them. "There are a lot of phone calls being made this morning," said one Democratic official, who, like others quoted in this story, asked for anonymity when discussing politically sensitive discussions. Tuesday afternoon, Feinstein issued a statement saying that both Obama and Vice-President elect Joe Biden had contacted her to explain why they believed Panetta was a good choice. Early indications were that the Obama camp's belated outreach appeared to be having an effect.
"Expressing concern [about Panetta's lack of intelligence experience] and opposing the nominee are two different things," said a Democratic official, who believes that most Democrats will eventually come around to supporting the nomination. Another Democratic official conceded that the criticism of Panetta has as much to do with pride and hurt feelings as it does real concerns about his abilities to do the job. This official says Feinstein and Rockefeller likely would have kept their reservations about Panetta to themselves had Obama done them the courtesy of consulting them first.
Obama is believed to have chosen an outsider to run the CIA in part because most other potential candidates with recent intelligence experience were in some way involved with controversial Bush administration intelligence policies, including the warrantless wiretapping of U.S. citizens or the use of aggressive and legally dubious interrogation techniques. Initially, Obama hoped to appoint John Brennan, his top transition adviserr on intelligence, to the job. But Brennan was a top aide to CIA director George Tenet and then headed an interagency counterterrorism center. After bloggers flogged him for publicly defending agency officials who worked on interrogation cases, Brennan withdrew his name from consideration.
Some Democrats on Capitol Hill—including Feinstein—were nonetheless urging Obama to name a veteran intelligence official to head the CIA. One name floated by some Capitol Hill Democrats: Steve Kappes, the agency's current deputy director. An experienced field operative, Kappes was purged from the agency when another Capitol Hill veteran, former House Intelligence Committee chairman Porter Goss, took over as director in 2004. But when Goss was driven out of the agency in 2006 after a rocky tenure, Kappes was brought back to Langley to help restore morale. Obama's team was apparently concerned, however, that Kappes's involvement in post-9/11 counterterrorism operations could have exposed him to the same kind of Bush-related controversies that dogged Brennan.
Goss's tenure as CIA director—generally regarded as unsuccessful if not disastrous—is cited by Panetta's critics as a cautionary example of why it could be unwise to appoint a political type to run the agency. The CIA is a clannish, esoteric bureaucracy in which dissembling, deception and deviousness are prized. Outsiders unfamiliar with the institution's culture can find themselves outmaneuvered by career officials.
Goss's tenure was particularly blighted by his decision to bring in a team of political operatives who had worked for him on Capitol Hill. Goss and his henchmen purged the agency's top management and installed bureaucrats they regarded as loyal or at least malleable. But Goss's power began to crumble shortly after the FBI raided the office of one of Goss's top aides, No. 3 ranked agency official Dusty Foggo, as part of a corruption probe. (Foggo recently pleaded guilty to federal wire fraud in the case and is slated to sentenced this month). Even critics of the Panetta nomination, who worry that his learning curve in the knives-out espionage world could be steep, say he is unlikely to repeat the kind of mistakes that sullied Goss's reign at Langley.