Feinstein Softens on Obama's Pick of Panetta to Lead the CIA

The California senator now says she'll support Panetta to lead the intelligence agency.

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SAN FRANCISCO—After a surprisingly heated reaction earlier this week to President-elect Barack Obama's apparent selection of Leon Panetta as CIA director, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein and the would-be spy chief appear to have put the matter behind them.

Feinstein, who as the incoming chair of the Intelligence Committee will be working closely with Panetta, should he be confirmed, dropped her criticism of her fellow Californian yesterday. "I believe all systems are go," she told reporters at the Capitol. "I'm going to vote for him."

On Monday, when news leaked that Panetta, a former U.S. congressman and Clinton administration aide, was Obama's likely pick for CIA director, Feinstein seemed to push back firmly against the choice. "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."

While many other California leaders who know Panetta were scratching their heads over his selection, acknowledging that he has never before worked in foreign policy or intelligence, some of the state's leading political figures did rush to his defense. Barbara Boxer, the state's junior senator, expressed her support for Panetta in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle.

"He's a wonderful leader, manager, reformer . . . with a lot of skills," Boxer said. "And I guess there're two things you could look for—an outsider like Leon who could come in and reform the agency and build up the trust . . . and make it more amenable to working with the other agencies. The other is to just take an expert in intelligence and put them in charge—and that's more a hands-on person, an 'into the weeds' person."

After Feinstein received a personal call from Obama, who reportedly apologized for not consulting with her about his choice, she met with Panetta late Tuesday night and appears to have decided she will support him. Panetta is expected to play a key role in unraveling some of the CIA programs created by President Bush after 9/11, including the use of harsh interrogation methods on suspected terrorists.

"I had a good discussion with him. I'm confident that he understands. I'm supportive," Feinstein said. "I've known him for 20 years. I know him to be a man of credibility and a man of conscience and a man of talent, and I believe he will surround himself with top-notch staff from the intelligence community."

As head of the Intelligence Committee, Feinstein will preside over Panetta's confirmation hearing. Without her vote, he had little chance of being confirmed. With her support, he is likely to be approved, many experts believe, though another Democrat on the committee, Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, has said he expects Panetta to be "seriously grilled."