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Obama To Pick Intelligence Novice To Head CIA


It's Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Ari Shapiro. The identity of the man who will keep the secrets was kept a secret until yesterday. He's Leon Panetta, and he's President-elect Barack Obama's choice to head the CIA. Panetta is a former Congressman from California, and he also served as Chief of Staff in the Clinton White House. He has almost no experience in the spy business. So to help make sense of the pick, we're joined this morning live by NPR's Tom Gjelten. Good morning, Tom.

TOM GJELTEN: Good morning, Ari.

SHAPIRO: OK. So Leon Panetta, did anyone see this coming?

GJELTEN: Not anyone that I've talked to, at least outside the Obama circle. This is a total surprise, Ari. Dianne Feinstein, the incoming chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, put out a statement last night saying she was not informed about the choice, and also making clear she wasn't happy about that. There are lots of possibilities for CIA director - were mentioned, but never Panetta. He's got almost no intelligence background, as you say. In fact, it's fair to say that Leon Panetta would be the least experienced CIA director since President Kennedy picked the businessman John McCone for that position back in 1961.

SHAPIRO: Well, there have been plenty of controversies involving the CIA in the last eight years involving enhanced interrogation techniques and other things. How did those debates affect Obama's choice here?

GJELTEN: I think it meant that the Obama team felt in the end they had no choice but to go for an outsider. The current CIA director, Michael Hayden, had made clear he wanted to stay on, but Hayden and other former CIA officers in the end, it seems, were seen as too closely associated with those old controversies, unwarranted wire-tappings, secret prisons.


GJELTEN: Water boarding. I think this choice shows that the Obama people, in the end, probably concluded they couldn't find anybody who had a lot of agency experience, but who was not tainted by those agency controversies.

SHAPIRO: Well, does this suggest that the Obama administration may be taking the CIA in a different direction?

GJELTEN: Well, it would seem so, but it may not be easy for Panetta to turn the agency around precisely, because he is not an intelligence professional. He doesn't know agency operations, the agency culture, the sources and methods available. He'll need a lot of on-the-job training. He'll have to depend on the people already there. The challenge, I think, will be to surround himself with people who know how the agency works, but who are also able to mobilize the agency for the kinds of reforms that are needed.

SHAPIRO: What kinds of reforms are those? What would a reformed agency look like?

GJELTEN: Well, we've talked about interrogation. A top one would clearly be to revamp the agency's interrogation guidelines. Mr. Obama made clear during the campaign he thinks the CIA and other intelligence agencies should abide by the guidelines in the army field manual, which are far more restrictive than what the CIA had been allowing. That's one change. The other big reform issue, I think, is accountability and oversight. The CIA leadership has kind of a black eye on Capital Hill right now among both Republicans and Democrats, because the agency has been less than forthcoming about some of its more controversial practices. I think as a former member of Congress, Leon Panetta would be expected to run the CIA with more sensitivity to the concerns of Congress and repair their relations there.

SHAPIRO: Although, as you mentioned, Senator Dianne Feinstein already was displeased that she didn't know that Panetta was the choice until yesterday.

GJELTEN: Not a good start, is it?

SHAPIRO: Well, President-elect Obama also announced that he would like a man named Dennis Blair to serve as Leon Panetta's boss. Blair would be the Director of National Intelligence. Tell us a little bit about who Blair is, and what his challenges are going forward.

GJELTEN: He's a former senior Navy officer, Ari, a four-star admiral, used to be commander of all the U.S. forces in the Pacific. And in that respect, he has that in common with the current Director of National Intelligence, Mike McConnell. Also Michael Hayden, the outgoing Director of the CIA, is a retired Air Force general. So we've got these - we got this tradition here continuing of senior intelligence people from the military. And I think Blair will be under some pressure to show his independence from the military. Another big issue for Dennis Blair is intelligence reform. This position, Director of National Intelligence, was created less than five years ago, and the role and the resources that go with it are still being worked through. There's likely to be a turf battle between the DNA - DNI, and the CIA over authorities and resources. So I think we can expect to see some rivalry between Dennis Blair and Leon Panetta.

SHAPIRO: Thanks, Tom.

GJELTEN: You're welcome, Ari.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's intelligence correspondent Tom Gjelten. 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 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.
Ari Shapiro
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.