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Leon Panetta Tapped to Head CIA, Prompting Criticism From Lawmakers

FILE: In Dec. 5, 2006, Leon Panetta was a member of the Iraq Study Group (AP Photo).

Bill Clinton's former chief of staff Leon Panetta has been tapped to head the CIA in President-elect Barack Obama's administration, causing surprise and a bit of consternation from several individuals involved in the intelligence community. 

Two Democratic sources close to the transition process said Monday that Panetta, who was a congressman and one-time head of the White House Office of Management and Budget, is Obama's pick to replace Michael Hayden at the CIA.  

One Democratic official also confirmed that retired Adm. Dennis Blair is Obama's choice for national intelligence director. That announcement is not unexpected. The 34-year old Navy veteran was chief of the U.S. Pacific Command during the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Blair is also a China expert, and he was an associate director for military support at the CIA.

Panetta is a surprise pick since he has no experience in the intelligence world, though as chief of staff he had considerable access to intelligence information and knows how the community operates.

Panetta was a longtime congressman from California who also served on the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan panel that released a report at the end of 2006 with dozens of recommendations for reversing course in the Iraq war.

Taken by surprise was Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., incoming chairwoman of the Select Senate Intelligence Committee.

"I was not informed about the selection of Leon Panetta to be the CIA director. I know nothing about this, other than what I've read. 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 in a written statement. A spokesman said Feinstein had not received a phone call about Panetta from anyone in the Obama camp and first learned about the decision from news reports. 

Senior Democratic sources told FOX News Feinstein had put forward the name of Steven Kappes, a career officer at the CIA. 

FOX News has learned that outgoing Intelligence Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., does not approve of the Panetta pick either. Rockefeller, according to one official, also put forward Kappes for CIA chief.

Sen. Kit Bond, the top Republican on the Intelligence Committee, released a statement saying he would "be looking hard at Panetta's intelligence expertise and qualifications." 

Based on a handful of conversations among those linked to the intelligence community, Panetta's name was not on any of the watch lists circulating in Washington. Some of those who spoke with FOX News noted that if confirmed, Panetta, 70, will become the oldest person to become CIA director, a position considered to be extremely rigorous. 

They also noted that since Panetta served as chief of staff for Clinton, he will surely face questions about the Clinton administration terror policy and what critics saw as "dropping the ball" in the 1990s.

If confirmed, the move will be another sign that the Obama administration is trying to make a "clean break" from what they have described as the Bush administration's heavy counter-terror policies over intelligence-gathering.

A senior U.S. intelligence official noted that Hayden has increased morale at the CIA to its highest in years, the mission has a clear focus and successes notable. 

Playing offense against terrorists and countering weapons proliferation are among those successes. Those efforts have saved lives and helped keep the country safe, the official said. Hayden has done a lot of good over there at the CIA. If in fact that is the decision that has been made, he will have left the place in far better shape than he found it, the official added.  

The search for Obama's new CIA chief had been stalled since November, when John Brennan, Obama's transition intelligence adviser, abruptly withdrew his name from consideration. Brennan said his potential nomination had sparked outrage among civil rights and human rights groups, who argued that he had not been outspoken enough in his condemnation of President Bush's policies.

Panetta is just the latest Clinton-era official to be invited into Obama's administration. Obama's pick for chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, also worked in the Clinton White House as a senior adviser to the president. A number of other nominees to key positions worked in the Clinton administration. 

Panetta currently directs with his wife Sylvia the Leon & Sylvia Panetta Institute for Public Policy, based at California State University, Monterey Bay a university he helped establish on the site of the former U.S. Army base, Fort Ord.

FOX News' Major Garrett, Trish Turner and Catherine Herridge and The Associated Press contributed to this report.