WASHINGTON, Jan. 6, 2009— -- 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."
Mixed Reaction on Panetta Pick
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."
To correct this in the future, Pillar said he favors making the post of CIA director similar to that of the FBI, where the position is not dependent on the political cycle. Changing directors under a new administration is not necessarily the best way to bring in new ideas or ensure continuity of knowledge at the agency, he said.
Either way, Pillar said he has no doubt the agency will adapt to Panetta's leadership as the agency has done well in the past with directors who have come from both inside and outside the intelligence community.
Deutch told ABC News that there have been successful precedents for former congressmen stepping in to head the agency, including George H. W. Bush's tenure as CIA director in the 1970s, which he cited as "enormously effective."
He cites Panetta's experience on Capitol Hill and managing large budgets during the Clinton administration as positives that will serve him well in managing a "complicated government organization" like the CIA.
But former CIA official Michael Scheurer was more direct in his criticism of choosing someone outside the intelligence community to head the agency.
"I think many at the CIA will think they're trading a silk purse for a sow's ear," he said.
In an interview with ABC News, Scheurer, who headed the CIA unit that hunted Osama bin Laden, labeled Panetta "a Democratic Party apparatchik" who "may be a talented bureaucrat," but who has little in his resume to suggest he "has any talent for this particular job."
Scheurer predicts that Panetta's leadership could have a chilling effect on the agency and that "morale won't be good" as he "bends" to Congress and "harasses agency officials who ran the rendition and secret prison program."
A senior intelligence official said that during his tenure Hayden has boosted morale at the agency and "done a lot of good over there at CIA."
"If in fact such a decision has been made, Mike will leave the place in far better shape than he found it. That's for sure," the senior official said.
"Hayden takes pride in what [the] CIA has accomplished since he has been there," the official said. "Morale is higher than it has been in years, there is a clear focus on the mission and there have been some notable successes. Playing offense against terrorists and countering weapons proliferation are among those successes. Those efforts have saved lives and helped keep the country safe."