Senate Republicans on Wednesday began listing concerns and questions they have about President-elect Obama's selection of Leon Panetta to lead the CIA, including statements Panetta had made regarding intelligence assessments about Iraq.
Senate GOP aides working with Senate Intelligence ranking member Christopher (Kit) Bond, R-Mo., are poring over Panetta's public statements and writings to determine what kind of a grasp he has on intelligence matters.
One of the first items to catch their attention includes part of an opinion piece Panetta wrote in March in the Monterey (Calif.) County Herald.
"Five years ago, America went to war in Iraq over the false fear that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction," Panetta wrote, adding that "we now know that there were intelligence officials who questioned the assertion."
To the contrary, Bond's office asserts that every intelligence professional interviewed for a report about prewar intelligence on Iraq believed the country had weapons of mass destruction before the 2003 invasion.
The 2004 report found that the intelligence community's assessment that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction was a massive failure. The report was approved unanimously by the Intelligence Committee, then led by Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan.
"How will Mr. Panetta be able to continue to reform analysis at the CIA if he doesn't understand what led to the Iraq intelligence failure?" Bond asked. "I hope that Mr. Panetta will read that report so that he will know the facts before he appears at his nomination hearing."
Bond added: "I will also be examining some of Mr. Panetta's previous statements -- or misstatements -- about intelligence and want to gauge his willingness to correct these things once he knows the facts."
Bond said he is concerned that when Panetta served as chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, not enough was done to go after al-Qaida.
"I will be looking hard at Panetta's intelligence expertise and qualifications," he said. In addition, Bond said he wants to know what Panetta, whom he pointed out has spoken out against torture, will do to solve "the tough problems our intelligence professionals and our nation face."
A Democratic aide disputed the idea that Panetta did not realize al-Qaida was a serious threat when he served for Clinton. "That's a direct misunderstanding of Panetta's background and where he's been on this issue," the aide said.
The aide said Panetta has been defended publicly by Richard Clarke, a top counterterrorism official in Clinton's and President Bush's administrations, and has been getting bipartisan support.
The aide said Panetta would respond to questions about comments he made, such as those within the Monterey newspaper article, during his confirmation hearing, if necessary.
Meanwhile, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said she had a long talk with Panetta late Tuesday and plans to talk to him again next week about his nomination.
"I believe all systems are go," she said Wednesday.
Feinstein and other key senators were caught off guard Monday when news leaked that Panetta would be nominated for the CIA post before they were informed by Obama's transition team.
Feinstein would not say Wednesday whether she supports Panetta's nomination.
"Other friends were interested in this appointment, who were in the political arena, and I told them that I believed that a professional intelligence person was best suited for the job," she said.
"What I do care about is the agency. It faces many issues and it has many problems," she added. "And what I do care about is that the White House is given crisp, good, as much as possible factual intelligence. And it is not what they want to hear necessarily, but it is what the agency believes is the truth."
She added it would be critical for Panetta to keep other top intelligence officials at the CIA if he is confirmed, such as Stephen Kappes, the agency's current deputy director.