WASHINGTON — Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the incoming chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Wednesday she intends to support President-elect Barack Obama's choice for CIA chief, Leon Panetta, despite earlier comments that she had reservations about the choice.
Obama chose Panetta, a former White House chief of staff who has no formal background in the intelligence community, without consulting with Feinstein. Obama later apologized to her for the lapse.
Feinstein said in an interview Wednesday that she spoke with Panetta, a fellow Californian, for about 20 minutes on Tuesday evening and came away reassured.
"I had a good discussion with him. I'm confident that he understands. I am supportive," Feinstein said. "I've known him for 20 years. I know him to be a man of credibility and a man of conscience and a man of talent, and I believe he will surround himself with top-notch staff from the intelligence community."
After Obama's choice of Panetta was disclosed by news organizations Monday, Feinstein and former Intelligence Committee chairman Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., voiced doubts about Panetta's lack of grounding in intelligence matters. Obama contacted both key senators to acknowledge what Vice President-elect Joe Biden called a "mistake," and the incoming administration has continued efforts to press Panetta's backing before he comes up for a confirmation hearing.
Rockefeller has not yet publicly indicated his position on Panetta.
Nor has Obama made an official announcement about his choice for CIA chief.
"All I can say is Leon Panetta is an outstanding public servant with impeccable integrity, somebody who's worked on national security at the highest levels and if I were to select him, I think he would do an outstanding job," Obama said Wednesday in an interview with CNBC.
Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., a member of the intelligence panel who said he was pleased with Panetta's nomination from the onset, said he had been contacted by Obama's staff and thanked for his vocal public support.
"I was thanked for my positive remarks and urged to keep making them," he said.
Feinstein earlier had expressed a preference for an intelligence professional to head the agency. But she said her confidence that Panetta would surround himself with good staff allayed that concern.
She declined to comment on whether she'd been given assurances that the agency's No. 2, Steve Kappes, would stay on, but indicated she wanted him to.
Obama's failure to consult with her before making the pick "is all behind us," Feinstein told reporters.
"I believe there was an oversight and I don't really care about that. What I do care about is the agency, and that it faces many issues and it has many problems," Feinstein said. "And what I do care about is that the White House is given crisp, good, as much as possible factual, intelligence, and it is not what they want to hear necessarily but it is what the agency believes is the truth.
"President-elect Obama made the comment that he doesn't want to be told what they think he wants to hear but what they think he should hear, and that's good enough for me."
Panetta continued to enjoy support from others.
"I certainly plan to vote for him," Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., a member of the intelligence committee, said in an interview.
Wyden said he expects Panetta will be "seriously grilled" during his confirmation hearing by members who want to ensure he's the best person for the job.
But after that, the country will have "someone who will be a change agent and an outstanding head of the CIA."
Rockefeller spoke with both Obama and Panetta on Tuesday, according to an aide to the senator, and all agreed that Monday's news leaks that surfaced Panetta's name as the CIA chief nominee before it was discussed with Feinstein and Rockefeller had not been handled well, the aide said. The aide is not a spokesman and spoke anonymously to describe the discussions.
Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., the committee's top Republican, is reserving judgment on Panetta until after the nomination hearing, one of his aides told The Associated Press.
Separately, Feinstein and Wyden began a push Wednesday for what is likely to be the first political challenge for Obama's intelligence team. They have introduced legislation that would close the jail at Guantanamo Bay and limit the CIA's interrogation procedures to the 19 methods used by the U.S. military.
President George W. Bush vetoed a bill last year that also sought to limit CIA interrogations. In 2007 he issued an executive order specifically authorizing the CIA to go beyond the Army field manual with "enhanced interrogation techniques." Bush's veto was supported by current CIA Director Michael Hayden, who argued that the Army field manual does not comprise all the methods that would be allowed by law.
Feinstein also sought Wednesday to rebut criticism from commentators on the left who accuse her, Rockefeller and other Democrats of not doing more to rein in the Bush administration on torture and other issues. Some of these critics interpreted her perceived opposition to Panetta as a reluctance to embrace Obama's desire to change the CIA.
"I want the same thing he wants. I mean this is a clean break, this is a new chapter, and I want that too," Feinstein said.
"One of the things that disturbs me is people interpret this as my wanting torture. I've been there from the very beginning against it."
Associated Press writer Anne Flaherty contributed to this report.