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Obama Names Choices to Lead US Intelligence Agencies

By Gary Thomas
09 January 2009

President-elect Barack Obama filled out his national security team Friday with the naming of his top intelligence officials. Mr. Obama reached outside intelligence circles for his national intelligence chief and head of the Central Intelligence Agency. The choices have wide experience in policy and military matters, but no hands-on experience in the arcane world of intelligence matters.

President-elect Obama nominated retired Admiral Dennis Blair as Director of National Intelligence, or DNI, and picked former White House chief of staff Leon Panetta to head the CIA.

Mr. Obama said both men's skills and character make them the right candidates for senior positions in the U.S. intelligence community.

"I'm confident that Dennis Blair and Leon Panetta are the right leaders to advance the work of our intelligence communities," he said. "They are public servants with unquestioned integrity, broad experience, strong management skills, and the core pragmatism we need in dangerous times."

Mr. Obama said the two men are committed to standing against controversial practices implemented in his predecessor's administration.

"I was clear throughout this campaign and have been clear throughout this transition that under my administration, the United States does not torture," he said. "We will abide by the Geneva Conventions that we will uphold our highest values and ideals. And that is a clear charge that I've given to Admiral Blair and to Leon Panetta."

Neither man has any experience in intelligence matters. The choice of an outsider to head the CIA has raised some eyebrows and was widely discussed in the media when news of the appointment first leaked out. But, somewhat surprisingly, no reporter raised the issue of intelligence experience at the press conference announcing the choices.

Amy Zegart, who teaches on intelligence issues at the University of California at Los Angeles, says outsiders have been chosen to head the CIA before, but have often run into stubborn resistance from the entrenched and secretive bureaucracy.

"The CIA is a secret agency. It's not like the Commerce Department or another department," she said. "You can't get information about what policies are, what's happened in the past, very easily. Everything is tightly compartmented, which means it's really an uphill battle for somebody who's not from that inside to get a handle on what's going on. And particularly when we're fighting two wars at the same time, it's a very odd choice."

Former CIA officer Gary Berntsen, who was an organizer for losing presidential candidate John McCain, believes that Mr. Obama, like some other incoming presidents, is wary of the CIA and wanted his own man at the helm of the spy agency.

"I suspect that Obama, President-elect Obama, like many other Democratic presidents, is wary and afraid of CIA and he wants someone there to keep an eye on the place and to essentially make sure that they don't go too far, don't take risks," he said. "He's going to re-establish a higher level of control and bureaucracy on the place."

In an apparent bid to soothe worries at the spy agency about an outsider taking over, outgoing CIA director Michael Hayden sent a note to employees Friday. He said he and his deputy met with Leon Panetta and were, as he put it, deeply impressed with his candor and clear commitment to the welfare of CIA employees and his eagerness to immerse himself in the world of intelligence and espionage.

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