Obama Puts Out The Panetta Fire

02/06/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Sam Stein Senior Politics Editor, The Huffington Post

Barack Obama was forced into his first real rift with congressional Democrats on Monday when two influential Senators complained publicly about not having been consulted on his choice for head of the Central Intelligence Agency.

That evening and extending into Tuesday, the president-elect took his first swipe at intra-party damage control. Sources close to the transition tell the Huffington Post that shortly after Sen. Dianne Feinstein raised her complaints about Obama's choice of Leon Panetta, the California Democrat fielded an apologetic call from Joseph Biden.

The vice president-elect attempted to soothe some of the concerns held by the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee. According to the official, Biden told her that Stephen Kappes, currently the Deputy Director of the CIA, will likely work under Panetta -- a staffing decision very much to Feinstein's liking. Moreover, he assured her that the presidential transition team had meant to reach out before news broke, though Obama would likely not have changed his choice.

"They had been planning on it but it got out quickly and early," a well-connected Democratic official said of the call. "But it sounded like the phone call was really a 'sell' and not a 'consult.'" (Biden today publicly called the leaking of Panetta's name without Feinstein consultation a "mistake.")

Obama himself would make a call to both Feinstein and outgoing chair, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, offering the same mea culpas. But as of late Tuesday afternoon, the source said, Panetta had not reached out himself.

Either way, the soothing effort seemed to have its desired affect. On Tuesday, Feinstein softened her initial stance on the Panetta nomination, telling reporters that Obama and Biden had "explained to me the reasons why they believe Leon Panetta is the best candidate for CIA Director," and that she looked "forward to speaking with Mr. Panetta about the critical issues facing the intelligence community and his plans to address them."

Feinstein's shift may have been aided by a growing chorus of Panetta supporters. Both Senate progressives like Russ Feingold and moderates like Bill Nelson announced their backing of the appointment. Outside of government, former Senate intelligence chair Bob Graham also hailed the move.

"I think Leon is a very creative and strong choice," he told the Huffington Post. "The people who have been in that position in the past have traditionally been out of a background of providers of intelligence. Leon's perspective will be as a user of intelligence. And in his position, particularly as the chief of staff in the Clinton administration, he was one of the major users of intelligence."

Larry Korb, an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration and defense guru for the Center for American Progress, also praised the choice. "When you stop and think about it, he is on the right side of torture and he has been around Washington. He is not going to be overwhelmed by the career people," he said. "If I am Obama, I like it because here is a guy who comes in and won't be like [former CIA Director George] Tenet. He is not going to protect the agency. He is going to protect the president. He is going to be independent and tell Obama what he may not want to hear."

And so, the nomination of Panetta, which Obama reminded reporters had not even been officially announced, seemed to gain a measure of speed throughout the day.

But even if, in politics, all's well that ends well, the bundled or rushed Panetta roll-out still had some Democrats shaking their heads. On the Hill, officials were concerned that the lack of warning -- no one, save Sen. Ron Wyden, had seemingly been alerted -- would damage the nomination.

"Panetta may have a bit of a bumpy confirmation" because of this, said a high-ranking aide, before adding that he expected him to get the post.

Outside the halls of power, strategists acknowledged that the Obama team had not been at their "A-game" in the past few days -- whether they were the ones to leak Panetta's name early or were forced to respond to the early leak.

"It feels like something that got out, probably by someone who wanted to hurt [the nomination]," said one high-ranking strategist. "At this point there are so many people involved in these things" that the Obama team can't control the message.

The strategist, it should be noted, went on to effusively praise the Panetta choice.

And so it seemed that a consensus had gradually been reached: the president-elect had likely found his future CIA director, but taken some light friendly fire in the process.

"Any human being likes to know before rather than after," Graham said of the initial uproar. "And Sen. Feinstein has a very important position in regards to the relationship of the intelligence community and the Executive Branch and the Congress... Sometimes, however, the best-laid plans in terms of trying to control the message get coal shot in them. And this sounds like what has happened here."