Obama names Panetta, Blair as top spymasters

President-elect Barack Obama named two intelligence outsiders on Friday as his top spymasters to play a leading role in restoring what he has called a tarnished U.S. image abroad.

Obama nominated Leon Panetta, White House chief of staff to former Democratic President Bill Clinton, as CIA director, and retired Adm. Dennis Blair to oversee all 16 U.S. spy agencies as director of national intelligence.

Panetta and Blair did not come up through the ranks of intelligence agencies, and their nominations reflect Obama's determination to restore a U.S. reputation battered by accusations of torturing suspected terrorists and secret wiretapping of Americans' overseas phone calls.

"To be truly secure we must adhere to our values as vigilantly as we protect our safety, with no exceptions," Obama said in announcing his picks.

"Under my administration the United States does not torture. We will abide by the Geneva Conventions. We will uphold our highest ideals," he said.

Obama pledged to ensure that U.S. intelligence is accurate and untainted by politics, after the spy agencies failed to prevent the September 11 attacks and wrongly concluded that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

Obama rounded out the team with current or former intelligence professionals. He saluted the intelligence rank-and-file and stressed a need to defend the country against terrorism and other threats.

"There is no margin for error," he said.

Blair, 61, is a U.S. Naval Academy graduate who earned a master's degree from Oxford while on a Rhodes scholarship. He has served as commander of U.S. military forces in the Pacific, as well as stints on the White House National Security Council and as a CIA military liaison.

Panetta, 70, a former U.S. congressman, was White House budget director under Clinton before becoming his chief of staff, where he had access to presidential intelligence briefings. He also served on the bipartisan Iraq Study Group established by Congress in 2006 to assess Iraq war policy options.

Criticism, But Not Threat

The selections of Panetta and Blair have faced criticism, but there has been little sign yet that either would face a serious threat to his nomination. Both must be confirmed by the Senate.

California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee which will consider the choices before they go to the full Senate, said this week the CIA would be better led by an intelligence professional.

After lobbying by Obama, Feinstein said she would listen to Panetta's plans. She said separately she intended to quickly confirm Blair.

Some human rights advocates say Blair was too close to Indonesia's military as Pacific commander, when the country was accused of oppression in East Timor. A government watchdog, the Project on Government Oversight, has accused him of financial conflicts of interest.

Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, the top Republican on the House of Representatives Intelligence committee, said the Blair appointment fueled concerns over what he called the military's "growing control" over U.S. intelligence.

However, the chairman of the House Intelligence committee, Texas Democrat Silvestre Reyes, welcomed the nominations. He said Blair's military leadership skills would help unify and focus the intelligence agencies, and that Panetta would contribute legislative expertise.

Obama named a 25-year CIA veteran, John Brennan, as his White House counterterrorism and homeland security adviser.

He said the current national intelligence director, Michael McConnell, would serve on his Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. He also would keep in place National Counterterrorism Center head Michael Leiter, whose agency oversees strategic planning of counterterrorism operations.

By putting Brennan in a White House a job not needing Senate confirmation, Obama will have at his side a veteran spy who earlier pulled out of the running as CIA director amid public criticism that he was too closely tied to agency policies on prisoner treatment. He denied the accusations.

Brennan was interim director of the counterterrorism center, formed after the September 11 attacks. He founded an intelligence consulting firm in 2005.

[Source: By Randall Mikkelsen, Reuters, Washington, 09Jan09]

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