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Intelligence Positions May Be Difficult To Fill

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Every move by President-elect Obama is carefully watched for signs of the future. One move that he held off from making may be just as revealing.

INSKEEP: The president introduced his national security team this week, but left two key jobs open for now. One is director of the CIA. Another is Director of National Intelligence.

MONTAGNE: The jobs may take longer to fill because it's hard to find qualified people who are not associated with Bush administration policies.

INSKEEP: And now the Obama team finds itself in the middle of its own intelligence controversy. NPR's Tom Gjelten reports.

TOM GJELTEN: The question facing Barack Obama now is whether to choose experienced intelligence professionals or bring in outsiders. There are signs he's having a hard time deciding. John McLaughlin, a former deputy director of the CIA, says a new president should move carefully in choosing his intelligence leaders, given the recent uproar over coercive interrogations, wire tapping, and other hot intelligence issues.

Mr. JOHN MCLAUGHLIN (Former Deputy Director, CIA): Intelligence doesn't yet sit very comfortably in the United States. And much about it remains controversial. So a new administration really has to step back and say, what do we expect of intelligence? What do we want it to do? What are the legal limits? What are the limits that we place on it from a moral standpoint? And what are the things that we need it to do for the country?

GJELTEN: Until last week, the man widely seen as the top choice to lead the CIA was John Brennan, who'd been Mr. Obama's top adviser on intelligence issues during the campaign. Brennan is a 25-year veteran of the CIA who's served as station chief in Saudi Arabia, a top assistant to former CIA Director George Tenet, and a director of the National Counterterrorism Center.

But in a letter to Mr. Obama last week, Brennan abruptly asked that his name be withdrawn from consideration for any intelligence position. Liberal bloggers had mounted a campaign against him, charging he'd been tainted by his service in the CIA at a time when the agency was using coercive interrogation methods. Brennan said he'd never been involved in making decisions about controversial intelligence policies, but he said the criticism could be a distraction from the intelligence work that needed to be done.

President-elect Obama promptly agreed to Brennan's request, too promptly in the view of some of Brennan's friends and associates. They say the Obama transition team actually pressured Brennan to withdraw from consideration. John is not someone who walks away from a fight, said one former intelligence official. They pulled the plug on him.

Brennan himself declined to comment. A spokesperson for the Obama transition team, asking to remain anonymous, denied that the Obama team asked Brennan to withdraw his name. The decision was his, the spokesperson said. Regardless, there was fallout. Several intelligence professionals and analysts interviewed by NPR, including Democrats, say that if anyone who served at the CIA during the Bush years is now to be excluded, the Obama team could be left with relatively inexperienced candidates for top intelligence positions.

Gregory Treverton, who served as vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council under President Clinton, says he was distressed to hear that Brennan withdrew his name.

Dr. GREGORY TREVERTON (Senior Policy Analyst, RAND Corporation; Former Vice Chairman, National Intelligence Council): As a personal matter, I'm sorry that John did that, because I think he would have been ideal for the job, not withstanding the past criticisms. I understand why it happened, but I'm sorry it did. It seems to me he's just the right person with some time out of government, looking back on it, thinking about it, in lots of different perspectives.

GJELTEN: John McLaughlin, the former number two at the CIA and now a senior fellow at Johns Hopkins University, will not comment on the controversy over the Brennan candidacy, but he does say that top intelligence positions should go to people with proven qualifications and experience.

Mr. MCLAUGHLIN: Whoever steps into these positions has to be well-prepared, schooled in the business, savvy about the world, and have excellent judgment about how to proceed. In fact, thinking back over recent transitions, I would say more than in any transition in my memory, and I've served eight presidents, there will be less time for on-the-job training this time around than at any previous moment.

GJELTEN: Obama transition officials have not said when the president-elect will be ready to announce his intelligence picks. In the meantime, who's still a consultant on intelligence issues? John Brennan. Everyone around here has a ton of respect for him, says the transition official who wants to remain anonymous. Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.
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