Obama said to pick a spy chief with little intelligence experience
But defenders of Panetta say he could bring valuable management skills to the job.
Washington — Leon Panetta, reported to be President-elect Obama's pick to head the Central Intelligence Agency, has little hands-on intelligence experience – a reality that may make it hard for him to win the trust of operatives inside an agency known to be unwelcoming to outsiders.
But despite concerns that Mr. Panetta's résumé – ex-congressman from California, budget guru of the Clinton White House, and former Clinton chief of staff – does not qualify him to lead America's most prominent intelligence agency, some analysts say what the CIA needs most is a leader who can represent the agency's interests to the president.
Some spies, they point out, have made poor spymasters.
One former spy who recently headed the agency, Porter Goss, left under a cloud in 2006, amid plummeting morale and dissension in the ranks over Mr. Goss's efforts to reform the CIA.
"Being one of them isn't good enough," says a former CIA analyst. "Goss was basically one of them, but the agency hated him because he tried to tell the bureaucracy what to do."
In a less surprising move, Obama is also likely to tap Dennis Blair, a retired four-star admiral, as director of national intelligence, overseeing the CIA and more than a dozen other federal spy agencies.
If approved by the Senate, Mr. Blair would take up the post under pressure to reform the intelligence community, which faces enduring criticism for failures to foresee the 9/11 attacks and for mistakes ahead of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Even top Democratic lawmakers said they were caught off guard by reports of Panetta's posting. "My position has consistently been that I believe the agency is best served by having an intelligence professional in charge at this time," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, (D) of California, who will head the Senate Intelligence Committee.
The choice of Panetta may reflect the difficulty Obama faced in picking a CIA chief who is experienced but untainted by the controversial intelligence policies of the Bush administration. Veteran intelligence official John Brennan withdrew his name from consideration in November, citing opposition from human rights groups who argued he supported torture techniques such as waterboarding.
As Clinton's chief of staff, Panetta had a reputation for being a disciplined gatekeeper who kept the sometimes impetuous president and his staff in line. He is "not a shrinking violet," says William Galston, a former White House official.
Panetta is a "team builder" who may lack intelligence experience but whose managerial skills may be more valuable, said Dell Dailey, coordinator for counterterrorism at the State Department Tuesday.
Blair will take over from Mike McConnell, who has tried to hammer out a plan for intelligence reform since he took the job in 2007 but leaves much work to be done.
Blair headed US Pacific Command in the Clinton years and was a former associate director of military support for CIA. He was a likely candidate for chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff but Donald Rumsfeld, the Defense secretary at the time, didn't pick him, reportedly because he thought he was too independent-minded.
"Blair brings organization, focus, impeccable integrity and a willingness to speak truth to power," says one retired senior officer. He added, however, that he's not sure Blair has the personality or charisma needed for team-building.