Senators Warming to Panetta as CIA Director

Posted January 6, 2009 at 6:44pm

Despite initial criticism that signaled a potentially difficult confirmation process for Leon Panetta as the next CIA director, Senators on both sides of the aisle came out Tuesday in support of his nomination for the senior intelligence post.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the incoming chairman of the Intelligence Committee who learned of Panetta’s nomination through news reports, initially questioned his credentials for the job. But her concerns seem to have been somewhat assuaged after winning apologies from the Obama camp.

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

The Obama team released a video Tuesday in which the president-elect played up Panetta’s management experience. Vice President-elect Joseph Biden also touted the choice on Capitol Hill on Tuesday and conceded that not running the nomination by Feinstein and other key Senators was a tactical “mistake,” saying, “I’m still a Senate man, so I always think it’s smart to talk to the requisite members.”

Biden went on to tell reporters that Panetta is “totally qualified for this job. … What the agency needs now is a strong figure who understands how it works.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) agreed, predicting in an interview that Panetta’s nomination would likely be approved.

“I know Obama is talking to a number of people who had concerns today, and I think it’ll work out,” Reid said. Panetta “is too much of a talent for people not to like him.”

Outgoing Intelligence Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) would not respond to questions about the nomination, and ranking member Kit Bond (R-Mo.) bluntly said in a statement issued Monday that, “In a post-9-11 world, intelligence experience would seem to be a prerequisite for the job of CIA Director.”

But as the first day of the 111th Congress went on, more and more Senators offered strong support for Panetta, a California native who was plucked from his ninth term in the House in 1993 to serve as President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff.

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

Several others struck a similar tone and dismissed the initial questions about Panetta’s résumé.

By appointing Panetta, Obama “recognizes the need for fresh leadership for the intelligence community,” Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) said in a statement, adding that the nominee “is well-equipped to restore our national security.”

Feingold said he did not “expect [Obama] to consult with all Members of the Intelligence Committee” on his CIA appointment, nor did he voice concern about Panetta’s ability to do the job.

“I’m going to reserve the right to look at his whole record,” Feingold said, adding in his statement that Panetta “has been a strong voice opposing the interrogation practices authorized by the Bush Administration and he is well-equipped to restore our national security.”

Other committee members noted that Panetta’s management experience trumped his lack of intelligence expertise.

“It’s not a deal-breaker,” Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said. “I think it will be criticized by some, [but] there are things about the CIA that could be approved.”

With confirmation hearings for Obama’s Cabinet nominees set to begin later this week, Panetta will likely be called to the Senate Intelligence Committee in short order. A hearing date has not been set, however, and calls to the committee were not returned.