WASHINGTON – President-elect Barack Obama had to do a little fence-mending Tuesday with the new Congress controlled by his own party — apologizing to a key Senate Democrat for failing to consult on his decision to name veteran Washington hand Leon Panetta CIA director.
Vice President-elect Joe Biden also branded it a mistake for Obama not to discuss the decision in advance with the incoming Senate Intelligence Committee chair, Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
But despite rumblings of criticism about Panetta's lack of intelligence experience, his confirmation is not expected to draw strong opposition.
After complaining Monday about the president-elect's lapse, Feinstein, who will oversee Panetta's confirmation hearing, said Tuesday that both Obama and Biden had called to reassure her. Feinstein had also questioned Panetta's lack of grounding in intelligence matters.
"I have been contacted by both President-elect Obama and Vice President-elect Biden, and they have explained to me the reasons why they believe Leon Panetta is the best candidate for CIA Director," Feinstein said in a coolly worded statement. She added that she looked forward to "speaking with Mr. Panetta about the critical issues facing the intelligence community and his plans to address them."
Feinstein was miffed not only because of the breach in normal protocol but also because Intelligence Committee Democrats were still smarting from being largely dismissed by the Bush administration for eight years. Bush vetoed the last annual intelligence authorization bill because it would have limited CIA interrogation methods, legislation spearheaded by Feinstein.
Obama also didn't consult outgoing chairman Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D- WV, about his unusual choice_ something a committee official said should have happened both for protocol and political reasons.
Senate Democrats were reluctant Tuesday to openly challenge their former colleague's handling of the Panetta nomination. At the same time, members of the Intelligence Committee clearly wanted to put the incoming administration on notice that they want to be kept in the loop.
"He is the president. He is entitled to make these decisions," said Sen. Evan Bayh, of Obama. But having said that, Bayh later joked, "Call me next time."
Panetta will face sharp questions about his experience, but Democrats were not expected to give him him a hard time during his confirmation hearing, and even key Republicans like Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe may not lead opposition efforts. Despite his lack of experience in intelligence gathering or analysis, Panetta, a former member of Congress and White House chief of staff, has wide contacts on both sides of the aisle.
Meeting with reporters in the Capitol Tuesday, Biden said the Obama team made a mistake in not consulting with top Senate officials before choosing Panetta. Biden said the lapse was a process mistake, but he praised the selection of Panetta, calling the Californian a "strong figure" for the CIA who would "take it on a new path."
Obama promised Tuesday that his intelligence team_ led by Panetta and retired Adm. Dennis Blair, the nominee for national intelligence director — will break with Bush administration practices that he said tarnished U.S. intelligence agencies and American foreign policy.
"We are putting together a top-notch intelligence team" that will "ensure that I get the best possible intelligence, unvarnished," he added.
He praised Panetta's management and political skills, honed in the Clinton White House as chief of staff and director of the Office of Management and Budget.
"I have the utmost respect for Leon Panetta," Obama said Tuesday. "I think that he is one of the finest public servants that we've had. He brings extraordinary management skills, great political savvy, an impeccable record of integrity. As chief of staff to the president, he is somebody who obviously was fully versed in international affairs crisis management, and had to evaluate intelligence consistently on a day-to-day basis."
He also praised the intelligence officers at the CIA and in other agencies as outstanding. The comment appeared to be a signal from Obama that he is distinguishing between controversial Bush policies, like harsh interrogations, extraordinary rendition, secret prisons, and warrantless wiretapping, and the agencies that were directed to carry them out.
Bayh said he has not spoken with anyone on Obama's transition team about Panetta's nomination. But he said he planned to call Panetta and recommend he keep Steve Kappes as deputy director of the CIA.
Former CIA director John McLaughlin said Monday that he supported Panetta's nomination because of his management experience, judgment and understanding of Washington, which he called excellent qualities for a CIA director.
"It's important that he turn to the professionals in the building and not show up with a coterie of people aiming to turn the place upside down — but I think he'll be smart enough to avoid that pitfall," McLaughlin said.
Feinstein was far more supportive of Obama's selection of Blair to be national intelligence director and promised in a statement issued Tuesday to get him a swift confirmation hearing and vote.
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