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Feinstein says 'all systems are go' for Panetta's CIA confirmation

After earlier indicating she might oppose Obama's choice to head the spy agency, the California senator now says she will support him.

January 08, 2009|Greg Miller

WASHINGTON — President-elect Barack Obama on Wednesday secured the support of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) for his choice to head the CIA, significantly improving the odds that former California congressman Leon E. Panetta will be the next chief of the spy service.

Feinstein, who as chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee will preside over Panetta's confirmation hearing, said Wednesday that she had spoken with Panetta by phone and that she would support his confirmation.

"I believe all systems are go," she said at the Capitol. "I'm going to vote for him."

Feinstein had indicated Monday that she might oppose Panetta's nomination because he lacked experience in intelligence matters. The endorsement ended a standoff over one of the most important unfilled positions on Obama's national security team.

Panetta, who served as chief of staff to President Clinton, is expected to play a key role in carrying out Obama's pledge to dismantle controversial CIA programs launched by President Bush, including the use of harsh interrogation methods on terrorism suspects.

But critics note that Panetta has never worked in the U.S. intelligence community. Feinstein said she had received assurances from Panetta that he would surround himself with "very capable professionals."

Officials close to the Obama team have indicated that the president will seek to persuade some senior officials at the CIA -- including Stephen Kappes, the deputy director -- to remain after Panetta arrives.

Panetta would report to Dennis C. Blair, a retired Navy admiral tapped by Obama to serve as the director of national intelligence, a position that oversees the CIA and the other 15 agencies that make up the U.S. intelligence community. Aides to Obama indicated that he might formally introduce Blair and Panetta as nominees as early as Friday.

Feinstein's reversal came after an intense lobbying effort by the Obama team, which had angered the California senator and other key lawmakers by failing to notify them of Panetta's selection before his name was leaked to the media.

Feinstein also unveiled legislation Wednesday that would impose sweeping restrictions on the CIA in its interrogation and detention programs.

The bill would require the agency to abide by the same rules as the U.S. military in prisoner interrogations, adhering to a U.S. Army field manual that outlaws abusive methods including sleep deprivation and the use of so-called stress positions. The CIA would also be forced to allow Red Cross workers access to prisoners in secret agency prisons overseas.

The bill was endorsed by other members of the committee, including Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who described it as an effort to end programs that had caused "grievous and lasting harm" to the nation's reputation.

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greg.miller@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Richard Simon contributed to this report.

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