President-elect Barack Obama has selected Leon E. Panetta, the former congressman and White House chief of staff, to take over the Central Intelligence Agency, an organization that Mr. Obama criticized during the campaign for using interrogation methods he decried as torture, Democratic officials said Monday.
Mr. Panetta has a reputation in Washington as a competent manager with strong background in budget issues, but has little hands-on intelligence experience. If confirmed by the Senate, he will take control of the agency most directly responsible for hunting senior Al Qaeda leaders around the globe, but one that has been buffeted since the Sept. 11 attacks by leadership changes and morale problems.
Given his background, Mr. Panetta is a somewhat unusual choice to lead the C.I.A., an agency that has been unwelcoming to previous directors perceived as outsiders, such as Stansfield M. Turner and John M. Deutch. But his selection points up the difficulty Mr. Obama had in finding a C.I.A. director with no connection to controversial counterterrorism programs of the Bush era.
Mr. Deutch, now a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said Mr. Panetta and Dennis Blair, who was selected by Mr. Obama to become director of national intelligence, were an “absolutely brilliant team,” and called Mr. Panetta a “talented and experienced manager of government and a widely respected person with congress.”
He said that given global environment, there are indeed good reasons for Mr. Obama to select a C.I.A. veteran to lead the C.I.A. But he said that two of the agency’s most successful directors, John McCone and George H.W. Bush, had little or no intelligence intelligence experience when they took over at C.I.A.
Aides have said Mr. Obama had originally hoped to select a C.I.A. head with extensive field experience, especially in combating terrorist networks. But his first choice for the job, John O. Brennan, had to withdraw his name amidst criticism over his role in the formation of the C.I.A’s detention and interrogation program after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Members of Mr. Obama’s transition also raised concerns about other candidates, even some Democratic lawmakers with intelligence experience. Representative Jane Harman of California, formerly the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, had hoped to get the job, but she was ruled out as a candidate in part because of her early support for some Bush administration programs like the domestic eavesdropping program.
In disclosing the pick, officials pointed to Mr. Panetta’s sharp managerial skills, his strong bipartisan standing on Capitol Hill, his significant foreign policy experience in the White House and his service on the Iraq Study Group, the bipartisan panel that examined the war and made recommendations on United States policy. The officials noted that he had a handle on intelligence spending from his days as director of the Office and Management and Budget.
“He will bring a wealth of knowledge of the government to the C.I.A. post and an outside perspective that I think might be helpful at this juncture in the C.I.A.’s history,” said Lee Hamilton, the former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and a co-chairman of the Iraq Study Group.
As C.I.A. director, Mr. Panetta would report to Mr. Blair, a retired admiral. Neither choice has yet been publicly announced. The C.I.A. has settled down from years of turmoil after the Sept. 11 attacks and fallout from flawed intelligence assessments about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programs.
At the same time, it faces uncertainly about where it fits in the constellation of spy agencies operating under the director of national intelligence. In recent months, Michael V. Hayden, the current C.I.A. director, has clashed with Mike McConnell, the current director of national intelligence, about Mr. McConnell’s efforts to fill top intelligence jobs overseas with officers from across the intelligence community, not just the C.I.A.
Mr. Panetta, a native of Monterey, Calif., served eight terms in the House representing his home region before becoming the chief budget adviser to President Bill Clinton in 1993. He then served as Mr. Clinton’s chief of staff from July 1994 to January 1997.
Given the focus on the intelligence apparatus in the wake of the terror attacks and the ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, Mr. Obama’s selections in the intelligence field are expected to be closely examined.
Mr. Hamilton said that if confirmed, Mr. Panetta will have the advantage of moving to the agency headquarters in Langley, Va. with a strong relationship to Mr. Obama, which can translate into influence within the broader intelligence community. He said Mr. Panetta’s lack of hands-on intelligence experience can be supplemented by others.
“You have to look at the team,” he said. “You clearly will want intelligence professionals at the highest levels of the C.I.A.,” he said.