Obama Seeks to Ease Tensions Over Panetta Pick

Posted January 6, 2009 at 12:19pm

Updated: 2:23 p.m.

President-elect Barack Obama sought to ease tensions today over his reported pick of Leon Panetta to head the CIA, calling Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) one day after the incoming chairman of the influential Intelligence Committee had voiced serious concern. Obama also praised Panetta in a discussion with reporters today, though he made a point of noting that the announcement was not official yet.

“President-elect Obama and Vice President-elect Biden both have called, [and] we’ve had substantive conversation,” Feinstein said Tuesday. “I understand their rationale on that appointment, and I’ll keep that in mind.”

Later in the afternoon, the Obama team released a video of a question-and-answer session at his transition headquarters. In it, he said, “I have the utmost respect for Leon Panetta. … He brings extraordinary management skills. … He has an impeccable record of integrity.”

Obama couched his comments slightly, adding, “Having said that, I have not made the announcement. When we do, people will see we’re putting together a top-notch intelligence team.” That team, he said, “is committed to breaking with some of the past practices and concerns that have, I think, tarnished the image of the agencies.”

Feinstein had been critical of Panetta’s lack of intelligence credentials, maintaining that “the agency is best served by having an intelligence professional in charge at this time.”

But after receiving calls and apologies from Obama and Biden, Feinstein appears to be striking a more conciliatory tone.

“They’ve apologized profusely,” Feinstein said. “I’ve been around a long time. I know this happens.”

Feinstein’s initial concerns were shared by some other prominent Senators, including Intelligence Vice Chairman Kit Bond (R-Mo.) and outgoing Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.).

But on Tuesday, supporters started lining up for Panetta, a former Congressman from California who served as President Bill Clinton’s budget adviser and chief of staff.

“It’s more critical to assume that one has the management experience for the job,” Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) said, noting Panetta’s tenure as a chief of staff. “I have enormous respect for Leon Panetta, and I understand why he was chosen.”

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), also a committee member, also complimented Panetta’s résumé and said his lack of intelligence experience was not paramount.

“It’s not a deal breaker,” he said.

Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), another Intelligence member, added: “Leon Panetta is an outstanding public servant, and I intend to support his nomination for CIA director. We should respect the judgment of President-elect Obama and his commitment to do what’s right for our country.”