Leon Panetta, President-elect Barack Obama's pick to head the CIA, could be "a fabulous choice" to lead the agency or a nominee who is inexperienced with intelligence matters and will have a chilling effect on the agency, according to top former CIA officials.
Panetta, a former congressman and chief of staff in the White House under President Clinton, was chosen after an extended search by the Obama transition team for a nominee who would not be tainted by support for the CIA's secret detention program for terror suspects and the use of controversial interrogation techniques, including waterboarding.
Current CIA director Gen. Michael Hayden has steadfastly defended the programs, which Obama criticized during the presidential campaign.
Former CIA director John M. Deutch called Panetta's selection "an absolutely fabulous choice" that, combined with the expected nomination of retired Adm. Dennis Blair as the director of national intelligence, creates "a tremendously powerful team that will do fabulously well for the intelligence community."
As CIA director, Panetta would report to Blair.
Panetta was also praised by ex-CIA director George Tenet, according to a former intelligence official familiar with the views of the former CIA chief. The official said Tenet "believes Panetta is an excellent nomination."
But an important congressional player has expressed reservations. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the incoming chair of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee, questioned whether Panetta is the right person for the job.
"My position has consistently been that I believe the agency is best served by having an intelligence professional in charge at this time," Feinstein said.
A former CIA official told ABC News that Panetta was a "surprising" but "pretty good pick." He said that in conversations about Panetta he'd had with current CIA officials they seemed "a little circumspect."
"They were fans of Mike Hayden and [were] hoping he'd be asked to stick around," the former official said.
This former official said Obama's transition team was forced away from selecting a career intelligence officer after having been "boxed in" by the withdrawal of leading contender John Brennan.
Brennan, a former senior intelligence official, withdrew his name from consideration last month over concerns about his role in the development of the interrogation and secret detention programs while he was at the CIA.
The official said the withdrawal forced the Obama team to look outside the intelligence community because "by ruling him out, they ruled out anyone who had been in the agency the last eight years or so. When you do that and look around for other people who have the capabilities and qualifications you are looking for, you quickly run out of choices."
Paul Pillar, a former senior counterterrorism official at the CIA, said he did not have an opinion on Panetta's choice, "who seems to have excellent leadership skills and a relationship with the president," however, he would have preferred to see Hayden remain in charge.
He said he thinks it is "unfortunate" that the Obama transition team "felt the need to replace him ... just like any Cabinet post, because of the controversies surrounding the rendition issue or the interrogation of detainees."