So how is President Elect Barack Obama doing in his first major task — building a White House governing cabinet? The reviews are mixed.
While many of Obama’s moves and decisions have pleased centrists, reassured some Republicans and perhaps concerned some progressives, the withdrawal of New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson due to an FBI investigation was a major toe-stub in terms of vetting. And while the naming of former Clinton Chief of Staff Leon Panetta as the new proposed CIA chief drew praise in some quarters, it has raised eyebrows in others.
Here’s CBS’ Bob Schieffer’s take on the Obama cabinet stew, notably spiced up by the dashes of Richardson and Panetta, after finally deciding to add the sometimes controversial but popular ingredient of Hillary Clinton:
ABC reports that the choice of Panetta is drawing mixed reviews among CIA officials:
Leon Panetta, President-elect Barack Obama’s pick to head the CIA, could be “a fabulous choice” to lead the agency or a nominee who is inexperienced with intelligence matters and will have a chilling effect on the agency, according to top former CIA officials.
Panetta, a former congressman and chief of staff in the White House under President Clinton, was chosen after an extended search by the Obama transition team for a nominee who would not be tainted by support for the CIA’s secret detention program for terror suspects and the use of controversial interrogation techniques, including waterboarding.
Current CIA director Gen. Michael Hayden has steadfastly defended the programs, which Obama criticized during the presidential campaign.
Former CIA director John M. Deutch called Panetta’s selection “an absolutely fabulous choice” that, combined with the expected nomination of retired Adm. Dennis Blair as the director of national intelligence, creates “a tremendously powerful team that will do fabulously well for the intelligence community.”
The coolest response comes from Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein:
But an important congressional player has expressed reservations. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the incoming chair of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee, questioned whether Panetta is the right person for the job.
“My position has consistently been that I believe the agency is best served by having an intelligence professional in charge at this time,” Feinstein said.
A former CIA official told ABC News that Panetta was a “surprising” but “pretty good pick.” He said that in conversations about Panetta he’d had with current CIA officials they seemed “a little circumspect.”
Prediction: barring some big revelation, Panetta will get the CIA post and his experience and “gravitas” will be of use on several fronts to the new Obama administration.
The reason: above all, Panetta is known as a consensus-builder.
And the opposition within the CIA? It isn’t surprising since already there are reports suggesting Panetta could shake things up:
If he’s confirmed by the Senate, Panetta would take over an agency that’s leading the fight against terrorism as it struggles to overcome the damage dealt to its credibility and integrity by its Sept. 11 and Iraq intelligence failures and by its use of interrogation methods on suspected terrorists at secret prisons that many experts consider torture.
“I think he’s an inspired choice,” said William Perry, former defense secretary during the Clinton administration. “What the CIA needs is strong, steady management at the top, and he can provide that.”
Panetta’s selection suggests that Obama intends to shake up the agency, which has had little public accounting of its role in detaining top terror suspects and transferring others to regimes known to use torture, a procedure known as extraordinary rendition.
The CIA, which denies subjecting detainees to torture, is part of a 16-agency intelligence community whose annual budget now exceeds $47.5 billion. The agency keeps its own budget and number of employees secret. Its successes, too, are mostly kept secret while some of its failures reach front pages.
Panetta has suggested that Obama could do much to signal a break with Bush administration policies by signing executive orders during his first 100 days that ban the use of torture in interrogations and close the Guantánamo Bay prison.
“Issuing executive orders on issues such as prohibiting torture or closing Guantánamo Bay would make clear that his administration will do things differently,” Panetta wrote Nov. 9 in a regular column he published in his local newspaper, the Monterey (Calif.) County Herald.
Given predictions such as this, it isn’t surprising that journalists could get quotes from officials who aren’t pleased hearing about someone who might bring about a kind of change they don’t want or don’t feel necessary but that the new President may seek.
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.