Obama courts controversy with his CIA chief pick

By Arun Kumar, IANS,

Washington : President-elect Barack Obama has stirred controversy by tapping a former Clinton aide with a thin resume on intelligence to head America’s top external spy outfit, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

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Media reports citing Democratic officials Monday said Leon E. Panetta, White House chief of staff under president Bill Clinton, would head the CIA, while retired Admiral Dennis Blair will be tapped as director of national intelligence (DNI), the apex body of 16 US intelligence agencies.

The proposed appointment of Blair, 61, who formerly headed the US Navy’s Pacific Command and was the CIA’s first associate director of military support and served on the National Security Council, as the DNI, did not evoke much of a reaction.

But strong signals of resistance to Panetta, 70, who has made critical comments on controversial Bush administration stances on interrogation policy and warrantless surveillance, came from Obama’s own Democratic party on Capitol Hill.

In August, he penned a piece for the Washington Monthly headlined “No Torture. No Exceptions.” It concluded: “We cannot and must not use torture under any circumstances. We are better than that.”

In July 2006, he wrote critically in the Monterey County Herald about the Bush administration’s interpretations of the law in the war on terrorism.

“Under this interpretation, statutes prohibiting torture, secret detentions and warrantless surveillance have been set aside,” Panetta wrote.

Still, the incoming and outgoing chairs of the Senate Intelligence Committee immediately signalled concerns about the pick, primarily because of Panetta’ s thin resume on intelligence.

“I was not informed about the selection of Leon Panetta to be the CIA director. I know nothing about this, other than what I’ve read,” said Democrat Dianne Feinstein, who will chair the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in the 111th Congress, in a written statement.

“My position has consistently been that I believe the agency is best-served by having an intelligence professional in charge at this time.”

An aide to John D. Rockefeller IV, another Democrat, who served as chairman of the committee in the 110th Congress, said: “I think, based on press reporting if it proves correct, Senator Rockefeller has some concerns about his selection.

“Not because he has any concerns about Panetta, whom he thinks very highly of, but because [Panetta] has no intelligence experience and because he has believed this has always been a position that should be outside of the political realm.”

Democrat Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was unaware of the choice of Panetta, but said he is “one of the finest public servants I’ve ever served with and dealt with since he left the House.”

Some experts have said the CIA’s role has been ambiguous since a 2004 intelligence community overhaul that put the office of the DNI in charge of all the spy agencies.

Panetta’s selection continues a trend that has seen Obama select seasoned Clinton administration veterans known more for their Washington savvy than their partisan tendencies.

Blair was a 1968 graduate of the US Naval Academy and attended Oxford University in Britain as a Rhodes scholar at the same time as Clinton. Blair retired from the Navy in 2002.

He has been sharply critical of US policy in terms of strategic long-term planning.

Blair also is known in Navy circles for once trying to water-ski behind the destroyer he skippered, the USS Cochrane.