Leon Panetta as CIA Director
When I saw the news yesterday afternoon that Leon Panetta was Barack Obama’s pick to head the CIA, I decided to hold off on posting and go play with my baby instead. My initial reaction was much the same as to the news that Hillary Clinton was going to be the next Secretary of State — that it simply didn’t make sense given the lack of relevant experience — and I was in a distinct minority on that one, with the likes of Henry Kissinger praising the pick. Not so much on Panetta.
To be sure, Panetta is a smart, decent fellow and he’s an excellent manager. As David Corn writes, “Panetta is an even-tempered and highly regarded Washington player–kind of a Mr. Fixit in a nice suit.” But he’s got essentially zero national security or intelligence experience.
Jules Crittenden has a good roundup of conservative blogger reaction which, not surprisingly, is scornful. But it’s not just the usual suspects scratching their heads.
Hudson’s Ron Radosh says the appointment “has created not only shock waves in Washington, but an obvious lack of enthusiasm on the part of some influential Democrats.” Dianne Feinstein, the incoming chair of the Senate intel committee and a liberal Democrat, is less than sold.
“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,” Feinstein said in a statement. “My position has consistently been that I believe the Agency is best-served by having an intelligence professional in charge at this time.”
Byron York says, “Word is Obama didn’t tell outgoing chairman Jay Rockefeller, either.” Unusual if true. And, frankly, odd for a transition team that has been universally praised for its diligence and smoothness.
CQ’s Jeff Stein says the pick “is likely to give Republicans fresh ammunition to reopen questions about the Clinton administration’s counterterrorism policies.” Of course, Obama might view that as a feature rather than a bug.
Spencer Ackerman reports that, “initially at least, the Panetta pick has not generated consternation from intelligence veterans, despite his lack of experience with intelligence.” Why? “Although there is concern about putting an inexperienced director in place during wartime, some longtime intelligence officials see Panetta’s proximity to Obama as a silver lining, as having a director with Panetta’s close ties to Obama may ensure the agency’s continued relevance.”
Of course, that brings up another question, which Noah Shachtman asks: “[W]hat about those pledges, to keep the intelligence community out of politics?”
In an update to his post, though, he notes the flip side:
Rozen gets an e-mail from retired CIA deputy director Milt Bearden, who goes even further. He calling Panetta a “brilliant” choice. “It is not problematic that Panetta lacks experience in intelligence,” Bearden e-mailed. “Intel experience is overrated. Good judgement, common sense, and an understanding of Washington is a far better mix to take to Langley than the presumption of experience in intelligence matters. Having a civilian in the intelligence community mix is, likewise, a useful balance. Why not DNI?”
Steve Benen makes a fair point as well:
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.”
Indeed, they’ve named their headquarters building after the last guy.
UPDATE: Matt Yglesias notes that it’s “long been the case that past service as a White House Chief of Staff has been viewed as a wide-ranging qualification for future public office.”
Alexander Haig became Secretary of State. Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney both went on to serve as Secretary of Defense. James Baker become Secretary of Treasury and Secretary of State. There’s nothing unusual about the idea that service in that job qualifies people for senior national security positions.
Well, Haig was also a 4-star general and Supreme Allied Commander, so he’s in a different category. And Baker’s tenure at Treasury, where he negotiated several key international economic agreements, were probably a stronger qualification than his previous stint as WHCOS.
Still, Matt’s right that that position is hugely important. Rumsfeld was a naval officer and had served on the defense committee as a House member but was certainly no defense expert when he was appointed SECDEF the first time. Cheney’s defense experience was limited, too, although he served as Republican Whip long after his tenure as WHCOS.