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Jim Woolsey Praises Panetta, Obama's Foreign Policy Team

First Posted: 02/13/09 05:12 AM ET Updated: 05/25/11 02:00 PM ET

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Former CIA Director and John McCain adviser Jim Woolsey professes to being "impressed overall by the quality" of Barack Obama's national security team, and believes that the president-elect's nominee to head the CIA, Leon Panetta, is more than qualified for the post.

In an interview with the Huffington Post, Woolsey, who headed the agency during the first years of the Clinton administration, praised Panetta for having the "breadth of experience" and institutional knowledge needed to take over the CIA.

"I think his general background in national security is certainly there from years on the Hill and in the White House and at Office of Management and Budget," Woolsey said, dismissing the knock on Panetta that he isn't seasoned enough in intelligence work. "He also has an engaging temperament. People tend to like him. He is decisive but he doesn't shove people around. He just works hard on getting the job done and he is engaging. People like working with him. So I think in terms if his overall managerial skills and intelligence, I think he certainly ought to be confirmed."

Among spooks, Woolsey's tenure at the CIA is regarded as one wrought with missteps, primarily because his relationship with President Clinton was so limited. The two never held a one-on-one meeting during Woolsey's two-year tenure in the office. And while Clinton did not have to rely on the intelligence community as heavily as his immediate predecessors -- his foreign policy undertakings were more humanitarian missions than Cold War confrontation -- the lack of dialogue created its share of troubles.

On the day he was to be introduced as Clinton's appointee, Woolsey recalled, "we were sitting around in the Governor's mansion in Little Rock... I said something about having served in the Bush administration... And Dee Dee Myers [Clinton's then-press secretary] said, 'Admiral, I didn't know you were in the Bush administration.' And I said Dee Dee, 'I am not an admiral. I never got above a captain in the Army.' She said, 'Woops. We better change the press release.'

"This was just a few moments before they were about to introduce me. So, clearly, I was not an intimate part of the team," he added. "It wasn't really a bad relationship. It just didn't really exist."

Woolsey would eventually quit when he couldn't solicit Clinton's help in small-bore tasks like securing appropriations from the Hill for training agents in Arabic. Within intelligence circles, the distance between him and the president has become something of a template for future administrations to avoid.

"I never quite understood why [Woolsey] and Clinton lacked that personal chemistry," said one high-ranking Democrat. "It remains to be seen what the chemistry will be between the new president and the intelligence community. Things have gone so well in the transition, where Obama has clearly been choosing people he wants to work with, that I think [the Panetta choice] is going to be the same."

Certainly, Woolsey sees Panetta as someone who can be a capable chief spy for the incoming White House. But the relationship of real import, he notes, will be that between Obama and Dennis Blair, the DNI who will be delivering the daily intelligence briefing.

"Sometimes the director of the CIA will be involved with the White House and the Hill," he said. "But I guess the way it is working now, it is the Director of National Intelligence, presumably Denny Blair, will have to labor more, with respect to relationships with the White House and the intelligence community as a whole, and with respect to testimonies."

Regardless of who has presidential access, Blair and Panetta will both have a lot on their plates. Woolsey, a chief advocate of the war in Iraq -- he was a D.C. confidant of notorious Iraqi exile Ahmad Chalabi -- still holds firm that there is "a very good chance to achieve a net success," though he roundly criticizes the conduct of the war, specifically the early use of "search and destroy" military tactics. An equally daunting but important task, he argues, will be weaning the U.S. off its dependence on foreign oil. And while, during the campaign, Woolsey called Obama's approach to these and other tasks "naïve" and "delusional," he now sees in the president-elect a prudent and centrist approach.

"I think it is a good team," he said of Obama's foreign policy appointees. "These are all able people. I know Hillary Clinton, and I know Jim Jones a bit better, I know Bob Gates better still. I'm not real close with any of them. But I'm impressed by the quality of the people and the kind of centrist, 'let's work on this all together' tone to his remarks, including his remarks yesterday on national security. I feel very much the way John [McCain] felt when he gave that wonderful concession speech. It is time to work together to help the president succeed. I can't think of any of these nominees that I think is a bad choice. And I'm impressed overall by the quality."

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