California Political Leaders Unsure of Panetta for CIA

Sen. Dianne Feinstein criticized Panetta's lack of experience.

By + More

SAN FRANCISCO—The California political establishment is scratching its collective head today, trying to determine the political calculus behind the apparent selection of Leon Panetta, a former congressman and Clinton administration aide, as President-elect Barack Obama's CIA director.

Last month, Panetta himself seemed to throw cold water on the idea that he might join the growing numbers of Californians serving in the Obama administration. Two of Obama's cabinet picks are already from the Golden State, including Steven Chu, the director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Obama's choice for energy secretary, and Rep. Hilda Solis, a Los Angeles congresswoman who has been nominated to lead the Labor Department.

Panetta, though, who has limited experience in either foreign policy or intelligence, told the San Francisco Chronicle in December that he was not seeking a formal position in the Obama administration and intended to continue serving in an advisory role. The former Clinton administration chief of staff and onetime budget director has been counseling the Obama transition team on hiring decisions.

"I'm enjoying advising," Panetta, 70, told the Chronicle, chuckling about his comfortable role overseeing his namesake Panetta Institute near Monterey, Calif. "Carmel Valley is pretty nice."

When Panetta's name leaked yesterday as the likely CIA director, many of the state's political leaders were caught off guard. Most notable among them was Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a powerful Democrat who will chair the Senate Intelligence Committee in the next Congress—and will presumably be working closely with Panetta, should he be confirmed.

"I was not informed about the selection of Leon Panetta to be the CIA director," Feinstein said, pointedly criticizing Panetta's lack of intelligence experience. "My position has consistently been that I believe the agency is best served by having an intelligence professional in charge at this time."

Some political analysts have suggested that Panetta's experience as a skilled manager of government bureaucracy—and as a respected figure untainted by the CIA's troubled reputation after the Iraq war—could be the basis for his selection. The Obama transition team has not yet commented on the Panetta pick.

Since the government was reorganized in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the CIA director no longer briefs the president every morning on national security matters, as was the practice for decades. That responsibility now lies with the director of National Intelligence, who oversees the CIA and other spy agencies. Obama has reportedly picked retired Adm. Dennis Blair, an Asia expert who served for years as the commander of the United States Pacific Command, for that role.