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article imagePanetta-Pick A Hot Potato For Obama?

By Joan Firstenberg     Jan 7, 2009 in Politics
President-elect Barack Obama is fielding an onslaught of objections to his proposed appointment of Leon E. Panetta. They charge he doesn't have any intelligence experience.
President-elect Barack Obama and his top aides are scrambling to mend a divide in the Democratic ranks over the nomination of Leon E. Panetta, a former White House chief of staff, to take over the Central Intelligence Agency.
The Obama camp has been calling lawmakers, deploying surrogates and offering public testimonials since Monday when news of Mr. Panetta's selection leaked before it could be shared with significant leaders. Critics say the issue is that Mr. Panetta doesn't have much intelligence experience.
In 1969 working in the Nixon administration, he was appointed Director of the Office for Civil Rights.
Panetta chose to enforce civil rights and equal education laws, even under alleged political pressure not to from then-president Nixon. Onlookers said of Panetta,: "Doesn't he understand Nixon promised the Southern delegates he would stop enforcing the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts?" He wrote about this experience in his 1971 book, Bring Us Together: The Nixon Team and the Civil Rights Retreat. In 1970, Panetta resigned and left Washington to work as Executive Assistant for John Lindsay, the Republican Mayor of New York City. It was also in 1971 that Panetta switched from being a Republican to a Democrat.
Panetta has been a U.S. Congressman from California's 16th district. During his time in Congress, his work concentrated mostly on budget issues, civil rights, education, health, and environmental issues. Though elected to a ninth term, he left the House in 1993 after then-President Bill Clinton selected him to be Director of the United States Office of Management and Budget. He is credited with developing the budget package that would eventually result in the balanced budget of 1998.
Panetta created CSU Monterey by converting Fort Ord, where he was chief of operations and planning of the intelligence section when he was in the army, into the university. Currently, Panetta serves as Distinguished Scholar to the Chancellor of California State University and as Presidential Professor at Santa Clara University.
Panetta has long been an advocate for the health of the world's oceans. As a member of Congress from California’s 16th District, he wrote numerous successful acts to protect the California coast, including legislation creating the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.
In 2006 he was part of the Iraq Study Group, also known as the Baker Commission.
President-elect Obama spoke for the first time publicly Tuesday about the choice. He said that Mr. Panetta and other members of the new administration would be “committed to breaking with some of the past practices” that had “tarnished the image” of the United States’ intelligence agencies.
But transition officials said Mr. Obama also plans to keep the C.I.A’s No. 2 official, Stephen R. Kappes, a highly regarded former Marine officer and agency veteran. It is a move that is expected to help defuse the criticism inside the C.I.A. about Mr. Panetta's sketchy background in intelligence.
But California Senator Dianne Feinstein, the Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, was sharply critical. Her career in California politics has tracked closely with Mr. Panetta's for many years. She spoke with Mr. Obama and Vice-President elect Joseph R. Biden on Tuesday, and came away with what seemed to be a slightly softened opposition, but she would not say whether she would vote to confirm Panetta.
Obama aides admit that they probably mishandled the process of announcing the Panetta appointment. Mr. Biden called it a "mistake" not to notify Mrs. Feinstein and other first about the decision.
The decision of whether a C.I.A. director should be chosen from inside the agency or installed from the outside has been a thorny problem for American presidents since the agency was established after World War II, succeeding the Office of Strategic Services. Intelligence experts say there is no strict formula for success: some career intelligence officers have proved to be dismal as directors, while others have succeeded; some outsiders have proved to be prescient, effective leaders, while others have found it impossible to impose authority over what remains an extremely secretive agency.
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