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Obama Names Panetta, Blair To Intel Team


From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Michele Norris. President-elect Barack Obama completed his national security lineup today. He named former Congressman Leon Panetta to head the CIA and retired Admiral Dennis Blair to be the new director of national intelligence. The CIA selection has not gone smoothly for the Obama team, and it raises a question; is it wise for a new president with limited experience in foreign affairs to pick a CIA chief with almost no experience in the field of intelligence? NPR's Tom Gjelten reports.

TOM GJELTEN: Mr. Obama's selection of Leon Panetta to direct the CIA came only after weeks of indecision. During his presidential campaign, he had turned to a CIA veteran John Brennan for intelligence advice, and Brennan appeared for a time to be the Obama choice to lead the CIA. But Brennan soon got into trouble because of statements he had made defending controversial CIA interrogation and detention policies. He then withdrew his name from consideration. The selection this week of Leon Panetta for the CIA position was also controversial, however, because of his lack of intelligence experience. But he's been in public life for about 40 years, and President-elect Obama today said the CIA, under Panetta's leadership, would have strong White House backing.

(Soundbite of speech)

President-elect BARACK OBAMA: In Leon Panetta, the agency will have a director who has my complete trust and substantial clout. He will be a strong manager and a strong advocate for the CIA. He knows how to focus resources where they are needed, and he has a proven track record of building consensus and working on a bipartisan basis with Congress.

GJELTEN: Members of Congress from both parties have been angered by the CIA's wiretapping, secret prison and interrogation controversies and what they see as its lack of accountability. Leon Panetta could rebuild its reputation. As for his lack of experience, the Obama team has already said the Deputy CIA Director Stephen Kappes and several other top CIA officers will stay on ensuring continuity. But is this really a reform scenario, an inexperienced outsider on top with insiders running the ship? Amy Zegart, an intelligence expert at UCLA, says the situation can be seen in two ways.

Dr. AMY ZEGART (U.S. Foreign Policy and Public Management, University of California, Los Angeles): If you're an optimist, what you might argue is that with Panetta at the helm, CIA now has the confidence of the president to be taken more seriously in policymaking decisions, and that's good for the agency, and it's good for national security generally. If you're a pessimist, what you see is Panetta's kind of a figurehead, and careerists inside the agency know that they can outlast him and he won't be able to actually forge reform agenda, whatever that might be, inside the building.

GJELTEN: Mr. Obama says he'll insist that his new intelligence team avoid anything that looks like torture and implement policies consistent with U.S. values. But Art Brown, a retired CIA veteran and former Asia division chief in the Clandestine Service, says Barack Obama or Leon Panetta could outlaw torture at the stroke of a pen. The real challenge, he says, is improving CIA performance, and he's not sure what Panetta will set out to accomplish there.

Mr. ART BROWN (Former National Intelligence Officer, East Asia): The torture argument goes away in 30 minutes. What does Leon Panetta do on day two if he - if he's being sent out there to stop torture, to make sure that the president's concerns over wiretap are followed, he can do that on day one. What does he do on the second day?

GJELTEN: In discussing his agenda this week, Mr. Obama said he wanted his advisers to give him unvarnished intelligence: not what they think the president wants to hear, but what they think he needs to hear to make critical security decisions. CIA veteran Art Brown is still wondering what that means.

Mr. BROWN: Every new president that comes in has that discussion, and every new CIA director says, yes, sir, I'll be telling you the unvarnished truth. What's going to be tricky now is to figure out what is it that he, quote/unquote, "needs to hear."

GJELTEN: What will Leon Panetta be able to tell a president about the situation in Pakistan, for example, where he may have to choose between supporting a weak government or directing the CIA to undertake more unilateral assassination missions? Mr. Obama did announce another intelligence appointment today. John Brennan won't be the CIA director, but he will be the president's top counterterrorism adviser and, therefore, someone who can help both Mr. Obama and Leon Panetta work through thorny issues. Still, Leon Panetta faces tough challenges. The CIA has had directors come in from outside the intelligence world before - George H. W. Bush, for example - but Amy Zegart notes that this was during the Cold War period, when the United States was focused on a predictable threat, Soviet communism, as opposed to al-Qaeda terrorism.

Dr. ZEGART: This is a much faster-paced environment. It's a much more difficult threat. It's a much more complex threat environment. And I think it's going to be unbelievably difficult for Panetta to deal quickly with this kind of threat and to get up to speed coming in from the outside.

GJELTEN: Still, the clear inclination in Washington is to give Leon Panetta an opportunity to prove himself at the CIA. After all his years in public service, he has many friends here, and Republicans and Democrats alike today praised his selection. Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.
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