PANETTA TO HEAD CIA…. Outside of Bill Richardson’s difficulties, the only cabinet-level position in the Obama administration unfilled by Christmas was the head of the CIA. Rumor has it that 25-year CIA veteran John Brennan was the leading candidate to run the agency, and when he withdrew from consideration after questions over his Bush-era tenure, it delayed the process.

There was even a rumor about a month ago that Obama might keep Michael Hayden on at the CIA, but like most rumors floated by Paul Bedard, this was both hard to believe and wrong.

In a surprising move, Leon Panetta is getting the job.

President-elect Barack Obama has selected Leon E. Panetta, the former congressman and White House chief of staff, to take over the Central Intelligence Agency, an organization that Mr. Obama criticized during the campaign for using interrogation methods he decried as torture, Democratic officials said Monday.

Mr. Panetta has a reputation in Washington as a competent manager with strong background in budget issues, but has little hands-on intelligence experience. If confirmed by the Senate, he will take control of the agency most directly responsible for hunting senior Al Qaeda leaders around the globe, but one that has been buffeted since the Sept. 11 attacks by leadership changes and morale problems.

Given his background, Mr. Panetta is a somewhat unusual choice to lead the C.I.A., an agency that has been unwelcoming to previous directors perceived as outsiders, such as Stansfield M. Turner and John M. Deutch. But his selection points up the difficulty Mr. Obama had in finding a C.I.A. director with no connection to controversial counterterrorism programs of the Bush era.

That last point is of particular interest. Pretty much every official from within the CIA in recent years has been tainted in some way by Bush administration policies. Obama needed someone capable who had nothing to do with the last eight years, and Panetta fit the bill. At a minimum, he had the highest of security clearances during his tenure as White House chief of staff, and no doubt spent a lot of time in intelligence briefings and in the situation room, and he was a member of the Iraq Study Group*, so it’s not as if Panetta is going to the CIA with no background.

What’s more, while hiring from outside the agency seems a little odd, former CIA Director John Deutch told the New York Times that “two of the agency’s most successful directors, John McCone and George H.W. Bush, had little or no intelligence experience when they took over at C.I.A.”

And what about Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), the former senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee? Apparently, she was considered but was ruled out due to her early support for Bush’s warrantless-search program.

* corrected

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Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.