WASHINGTON — President-elect Obama's decision to fill the nation's top intelligence jobs with two men short on direct experience in intelligence gathering surprised the spy community and signaled the Democrat's intention for a clean break from Bush administration policies.
Former Clinton White House chief of staff Leon Panetta, an eight-term congressional veteran and administrative expert, was tapped to head the CIA. Retired Adm. Dennis Blair is Obama's choice as director of national intelligence.
Obama is sending an unequivocal message that controversial administration policies approving harsh interrogations, waterboarding and extraordinary renditions and warrantless wiretapping are over, said officials.
Neither Panetta nor Blair is tainted by associations with Bush administration policies, in large part because neither is an intelligence insider.
California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who will chair the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Monday she was surprised by the pick and was neither informed nor consulted.
"I know nothing about this, other than what I've read," she said. "My position has consistently been that I believe the agency is best served by having an intelligence professional in charge at this time."
Veterans of the CIA were caught off guard by the selection.
"I'm at a loss," said Robert Grenier, a former director of the CIA's counterterrorism center and 27-year veteran of the agency who now is managing director of Kroll, a security consulting company.
The lack of intelligence experience puts Panetta at "a tremendous disadvantage," Grenier said.
"Intelligence by its very nature is an esoteric world. And right now the agency is confronted with numerous pressing challenges overseas, and to have no background is a serious deficit. I don't say that he can't succeed. It may that he can compensate for the obvious deficit."
Panetta was director of the Office of Management and Budget and a longtime congressman from California. As White House chief of staff during the Clinton administration, he spearheaded the internal effort to find a new CIA chief that led to the selection of John Deutsch in 1995. Deutsch served for 18 months. After he resigned, CIA security officers found classified material on his home computer, a violation of security procedures.
Obama's selection of Blair, a former U.S. Pacific Command chief, had been expected.
Blair served in the Navy for 34 years and was chief of the U.S. Pacific Command during the Sept. 11 attacks. Blair also is a China expert, and he was an associate director for military support at the CIA.