Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Watch Live


Obama Taps Panetta To Head CIA

Leon Panetta, named as President-elect Barack Obama's choice to be CIA director, testifies before the Senate Budget Committee in October 2007.
Chip Somodevilla
Getty Images
Leon Panetta, named as President-elect Barack Obama's choice to be CIA director, testifies before the Senate Budget Committee in October 2007.

President-elect Barack Obama will bring former Clinton administration official and federal budget expert Leon Panetta, 70, back to Washington to head the Central Intelligence Agency.

And the president-elect plans to fill out the second of the nation's top intelligence posts with a military man, retired Navy Adm. Dennis Blair. He will be director of national intelligence.

Lee Hamilton, who served as co-chairman of the Iraq Study Group and vice chairman of the 9/11 Commission, called Obama's choice of Panetta "superb" and said the former congressman is a seeker of consensus and is savvy in the ways of Washington.


"If confirmed, he would take over the helm of the CIA at a time when the intelligence community has been under fire, though I think they have made some progress in recent years," says Hamilton, a Democrat who served in Congress with Panetta and is now president and director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. "But the intelligence community has a lot of problems with public perception, and Leon is a very good communicator."

Panetta's perspective as an outsider, Hamilton says, is also needed. But, he added, "It will be hugely important that he have around him intelligence professionals."

Hamilton, who serves on the CIA Director's Economic Intelligence Advisory panel, said that of Panetta's priorities, transparency should be at or near the top of the list.

"I understand that's not easy in the secret business of intelligence," he said, "but restoring confidence in the agency is important." And nowhere is it more important than on Capitol Hill, he says, where Panetta has long relationships.

But others criticized the choice of Panetta, who lacks experience in the intelligence field. Dianne Feinstein, the incoming chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee and a fellow Democrat, released a statement Monday night saying she had not been briefed about the choice and suggesting she was not happy about it.


'A Really, Really Interesting Pick'

Panetta has been advising the Obama camp during the transition and had been mentioned as a possible high-level appointee. Still, his pick as CIA chief came as a surprise.

In turning to Panetta, a respected Democrat and former eight-term California congressman, Obama again tapped for his inner circle a top Clinton adviser and confidant. Panetta is seen as an experienced Washington hand with no apparent links to the intelligence community.

He returned to California in the late 1990s and founded the Leon and Sylvia Panetta Institute for Public Policy.

"This is a really, really interesting pick," says Samuel Popkin, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego. "Obama is putting someone in there who has been the head of the [Office of Management and Budget], the chief of staff to a president and an important congressman.

"This is a fascinating attempt to see if you can reconcile the interests of the CIA, in protecting the way they do business, with Congress' sometimes competing interests."

Popkin says Panetta may serve as an antidote for the lack of transparency that has marked the way Washington and the intelligence agencies have conducted business in recent years.

From California To Washington And Back

Panetta, a native of Monterey, Calif., and the son of Italian immigrant parents, served as director of the Office of Management and Budget under President Clinton before being appointed his White House chief of staff in 1994.

While representing California's 16th District in Congress between 1977 and 1993, Panetta, known as an unflappable consensus-builder, was a key player on the House Budget Committee, which he chaired from 1989 to '93.

He was also instrumental in social policy initiatives. He authored the Hunger Prevention Act of 1988 and the Fair Employment Practices Resolution, which, for the first time, extended civil rights protections to U.S. House employees.

He continued that work after leaving Washington. The institute he founded with his wife, Sylvia, is based at California State University, Monterey Bay, which he helped establish on land once occupied by Fort Ord, an Army base.

Panetta graduated from Santa Clara University, where he also received his law degree. He first went to Washington in 1966 as a legislative assistant to Republican Sen. Thomas Kuchel, then the Senate minority whip. Panetta changed parties in 1971, saying the GOP was moving away from the center. He served in the Nixon administration in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare.

Blair had been prominently mentioned as a potential nominee for national intelligence director. He's most frequently described as a brainy, workaholic Asia expert and an adept leader of large organizations. Like Panetta, Blair also is close with the Clintons: He was a Rhodes Scholar with Bill Clinton.

A native of Maine, Blair speaks Russian and was a Naval Academy classmate of both Oliver North and Virginia Sen. Jim Webb. He was chief of the U.S. Pacific Command on Sept. 11, 2001.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit