WASHINGTON — President-elect Barack 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, is being tapped to head the CIA. Retired Adm. Dennis Blair is Obama's choice to be director of national intelligence, a selection expected for weeks, according to two Democrats who spoke on condition of anonymity because Obama has not officially announced the choices.
The Obama transition team's long delay in selecting CIA and national intelligence directors is a reflection of the complicated demands of the jobs and Obama's own policies and priorities.
Obama is sending an unequivocal message that controversial administration policies approving harsh interrogations, waterboarding and extraordinary renditions — the secret transfer of prisoners to other governments with a history of torture — and warrantless wiretapping are over, several officials said.
Neither Panetta nor Blair are tainted by associations with Bush administration policies, in large part because they both come from outside the intelligence world. Blair was posted at the CIA for about a year.
Panetta could face tough questions at his nomination hearing about his background in intelligence. California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who will chair the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Monday she was surprised by the pick, and neither was 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."
John Hamre, the president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, served with Panetta during the Clinton administration. He said Panetta's experience as a former Cabinet member will help elevate the CIA's status inside the White House. The CIA director was once the president's main intelligence adviser. That role shifted in 2004 to the newly created national intelligence director.
Panetta also served on the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan panel that released a report at the end of 2006 with dozens of recommendations for reversing course in the war.
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.
Blair and Panetta would replace retired Adm. Mike McConnell and former Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden, respectively. Both men had said they would stay in their positions if asked.