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Obama Names Intel Picks

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

President-elect Barack Obama has finally settled on his choices to lead the nation's intelligence agencies. Two officials close to the presidential transition team say Mr. Obama has picked Leon Panetta to lead the Central Intelligence Agency. Panetta is a former congressman and chief of staff to President Clinton. He would report to retired Admiral Dennis Blair. That's Mr. Obama's choice for director of national intelligence.

Joining us now is NPR intelligence correspondent Tom Gjelten. Tom, Admiral Blair's name has been floating around for weeks as the intelligence director, but what about the choice of Leon Panetta to lead the CIA? That's surprising.

TOM GJELTEN: Michele, I think this is easily the biggest surprise of the whole Obama transition period. Leon Panetta, in addition to serving in Congress, was head of the Office of Management Budget, and he was chief of staff at the White House under President Clinton, but he has no direct intelligence experience.

In fact, no one that I spoke to today saw this pick coming at all. And the chairman - incoming chairperson of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Dianne Feinstein, said she did not know anything about it. And she made it clear she wasn't entirely happy with it. She said, she put out a statement today saying, "My position has consistently been that I believe the agency is best served by having an intelligence professional in charge at this time." One other interesting point about Leon Panetta, he is 70 years old. He will be, would be, the oldest director that the CIA has ever had.

NORRIS: That's interesting because she's a fellow Californian. What was the thinking here?

GJELTEN: I think, in the end, apparently, the Obama people felt they had no choice but to go with an outsider. So many of the intelligence professionals, the insiders, were seen as being in some way tainted by some of these controversies that have surrounded the CIA in recent years - wiretapping, secret CIA prisons, coercive interrogation techniques. When it appeared for a while that the Obama people were heading toward an insider, there was a firestorm of reaction of criticism, so they apparently decided to go with someone from the outside.

They may have felt that someone like Leon Panetta could be helpful in restoring the standing of the agency within Washington. He's got a lot of stature. One former agency official with whom I spoke said Panetta could do an effective job of representing the agency in the quarters of power. One other point, even though he doesn't have intelligence experience, he was, as chief of staff at the White House, he did sit in on the president's daily intelligence briefings, and therefore does understand how intelligence informs and shapes policy making.

NORRIS: So those people who were stoking the fires of criticism, will they be satisfied by the selection?

GJELTEN: Well, there is a bit of a dilemma here, Michele, which is that on the one hand, yes, you've got somebody from the outside. On the other hand, precisely because he is from the outside, he's going to have to defer to a lot of the people at the agency now on some of the more technical aspects of running the agency. And those who see that technical part of the agency operations as being the area where change needs to take place, he might be hampered. He could be sort of run over by some of these insiders who are staying on.

NORRIS: I'm interested. You've been speaking to intelligence professionals. I'm interested in hearing a little bit more about they're reacting to this.

GJELTEN: Well, wait and see is, I think, the prevailing attitude. In the past, they've been somewhat standoffish to outsiders who are coming in.

NORRIS: Finally, retired Admiral Dennis Blair was the name we expected to hear as director of national intelligence. Can you quickly tell us a little bit about him?

GJELTEN: He's been overshadowed, but he is a far less controversial choice, a lot of experience as commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific that made him a consumer of intelligence. He was also the Pentagon's liaison to the CIA under President Clinton. A brainy guy, former Rhodes Scholar. So his choice is less controversial.

NORRIS: That's NPR intelligence correspondent Tom Gjelten. Tom, thanks so much.

GJELTEN: Thank you, Michele. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tom Gjelten
Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.
Michele Norris