After a presidential transition notable for its smoothness and strong public approval, it has started to drizzle on Barack Obama’s post-election honeymoon.It was widely reported Monday that Mr. Obama would name former Congressman and White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta to run the Central Intelligence Agency. Mr. Panetta is a much-respected figure in Washington but has no hands-on experience with intelligence operations. His nomination was greeted with criticism by several influential Congressional Democrats.
Meanwhile, Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico held a press conference Monday to explain why he decided to withdraw from consideration to be Commerce Secretary, a position for which Obama had selected him Richardson’s move came in response to an investigation of whether a California firm had made improper political contributions to political committees linked to Richardson in order to win state business in New Mexico. The investigation had been widely reported in the press. Richardson strongly denies any wrongdoing.
Then there are the fiscal storm clouds. After a five-minute ride in the rain Tuesday morning from the Hay Adams Hotel to his transition office, President-elect Obama was scheduled to meet with his economic team to discuss the outlook for the federal budget. Current projections are for Obama’s first budget to post a record-shattering deficit of more than one trillion dollars.
In the run-up to Obama's Jan. 20 inauguration, the dust up over the selection of a CIA director is likely to be longer lasting and more significant than questions over why Obama’s transition team did not pay more attention to published reports of alleged wrong doing in New Mexico.
The Obama transition team is already at work to find a replacement for Richardson. The San Antonio Express-News reports that Congressman Xavier Becerra is being considered for the Commerce post. The Obama team is clearly looking for another Hispanic politicians to replace Richardson, a prominent Hispanic who threw his support to Obama after unsuccessfully running for president himself.
The controversy over Panetta’s selection underscores the difficulty the Obama team had in finding someone to run the CIA. Their goal was to find someone that they did not feel was tainted by an association with President Bush’s intelligence policies, including harsh interrogations, wireless wiretapping, and the secret transfer of prisoners to other governments. In November, John Brennan, a top intelligence adviser to the president-elect, withdrew from consideration for the CIA post after protest from human rights groups, arguing he had not been critical enough of the Bush administration’s policies.
Diane Feinstein, the California Democrat who will chair the Senate Intelligence Committee in the new Congress, responded pointedly to reports of Panetta’s pending selection. "I was not informed about the selection of Leon Panetta to be the CIA director,” she said in a statement. Feinstein went on to say that, "My position has consistently been that I believe the agency is best served by having an intelligence professional in charge at this time."
Meanwhile, Congressional Quarterly quoted an aide to West Virginia Senator Jay Rockefeller, the outgoing Democratic Chairman of the Intelligence Committee, as saying, “Sen. Rockefeller has some concerns about his selection. Not because he has any concerns about Panetta, whom he thinks very highly of, but because he has no intelligence experience and because he has believed this has always been a position that should be outside of the political realm."
Panetta has an impressive resume that includes serving eight terms representing the Monterey area of California. He oversaw billions in secret intelligence spending as director of the Office of Management and Budget. Panetta later served as White House Chief of Staff for President Bill Clinton and had access to the most sensitive intelligence information. In 2006, he was chosen to serve on the Iraq Study Group, a bi-partisan committee established at the urging of Congress.