Leon Panetta as CIA Director

Leon E. Panetta, the former congressman and White House chief of staff. (Kevin Wolf/Associated Press)

Leon E. Panetta, the former congressman and White House chief of staff. (Kevin Wolf/Associated Press)

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.

FILED UNDER: General, , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Bithead says:

    I suggest that anybody currently within the CIA can run the place better than Panetta would, right down to the guy who pushes the broom.

    Let’s face it; He’s a former Congress Critter and Lobbyist. The only qualification he has shown for the task over the years is that he is a loyal political operative. Appointment of such a man for such a post tells me that Obama views the CIA not as an asset to our security, but as something to be feared and controlled… micromanaged if possible… and Panetta certainly has that aptitude as he showed in Congress.

    That tells me his foriegn policy is going to be a joke, as if we didn’t know that before.

    There is one other thing that this appointment does; it brings Bill Clinton’s chief of staff into the picture. And as when observing Mr. Obama’s choice for deputy attorney general, yesterday, I am forced to ask how bringing in more Clintonistas constitutes “change”? I mean, if you’re going to appoint a Clintonista to the role on account of their political loyalty, wouldn’t you be better off with Sandy Berger? He, at least, has what could be called field ops experience… and likely the document- smuggling pants still fit.

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    I think there’s an interesting pattern emerging in the Obama Adminstration’s appointments. Apparently, specialist expertise is one among several of the qualifications for department heads and not always the most important one. If they’re right in their judgments it’ll probably be good, if they’re wrong it looks as though they’re protected from downside risk by the federal bureaucracy.

  3. Barry says:

    I second the others who emphasize that it’s very important to get a clean outsider. Particularly as it makes sense for the Bush-Cheney crew to try to get the Obama team as dirty as possible, as fast as possible.

    As for Bithead’s spewings, ‘vomit clean-up on Aisle 12…’

  4. Michael says:

    “I believe the Agency is best-served by having an intelligence professional in charge at this time.”

    There’s no lack of intelligence professionals in the CIA, it’s not like the director is out there gathering the information himself, or preparing the reports himself. He’s a manager and liaison, he needs to be good at that, not espionage.

    As a software developer, I can attest that the best manager for a software development group doesn’t need to be a software developer, in fact those are usually the worst managers.

  5. Michael says:

    I suggest that anybody currently within the CIA can run the place better than Panetta would, right down to the guy who pushes the broom.

    Of course you do, because not only is any decision Obama makes a bad one in your view, it’s always necessarily the worst one. He could appoint Jesus Christ as secretary of HHS, and you’d complain about it.

    The only qualification he has shown for the task over the years is that he is a loyal political operative.

    What, in all his history, makes you say that? Or did you just see that he was Clinton’s Chief of Staff, and that’s enough for you?

    if you’re going to appoint a Clintonista to the role on account of their political loyalty, wouldn’t you be better off with Sandy Berger? He, at least, has what could be called field ops experience… and likely the document- smuggling pants still fit.

    So while complaining that Obama is bringing in political “loyalists”, you’re simultaneously complaining that he’s not bringing in “loyalists”? You make no sense to me, Bithead.

  6. Bill says:

    I actually prefer to back choices of people that have experience. If I was going to hire someone to do a job, I would want to know that they’ve done something in the industry: if they haven’t then why should I hire them?

    The same thing goes for Leon Panetta. He as experience and may be a nice guy, but he doesn’t have the experience “in the industry” so to speak.

  7. anjin-san says:

    The only qualification he has shown for the task over the years

    I guess being a successful, competent executive at an extremely high level does not count. Well, of course that counts for nothing in Bushie world.

    Heres a hint bitsy. They are not bringing him in to be an analyst or a spook. Even notice how in the private sector, CEOs are often brought in not because they have experience in a particular sector or market segment, but because they have a track record of success as a senior executive?

  8. ken says:

    Typically when an organization is in need of a shakeup it is a good idea to bring in a competent outsider with no vested interest in internal organizational politics to do the job.

    The CIA needs to be rid of those holdovers from the Bush administration that approved or looked the other way about the CIA’s use of torture. An insider cannot do that. A clean sweep and a new start is needed for the agency and that is best accomplished with fresh leadership.

    Panntta has a big job ahead of him. I wish him good luck.

  9. markm says:

    “Representative Jane Harman of California, formerly the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, had hoped to get the job, but she was ruled out as a candidate in part because of her early support for some Bush administration programs like the domestic eavesdropping program.”

    I don’t know if she’s a good manager or not nor how much actual intel experience she has but that seems a silly reason for her being ruled out. Didn’t Obama vote to expand FISA?

  10. Moonage says:

    Well, my problem is not so much that Obama picked an outsider with no experience to head our intelligence during two wars and threats of attack from about half of the Muslim world, it’s that the outsider with no experience’s expertise has been in enforcing civil rights. Not sure I want someone who believes that strongly in individual rights to be in charge of our clandestine operations.

    So, count me in with the crowd that thinks this is the worst possible choice and sets the tone for our national security for the next four years.

  11. Franklin says:

    Ahhh, so THAT’s the problem? You don’t believe in civil rights. Got it.

  12. Bithead says:

    Of course you do, because not only is any decision Obama makes a bad one in your view, it’s always necessarily the worst one. He could appoint Jesus Christ as secretary of HHS, and you’d complain about it.

    Really? And other than Clinton, Panetta and Ogden, who exactly ahve I been complaining about, then? Let’s hear it.

    So while complaining that Obama is bringing in political “loyalists”, you’re simultaneously complaining that he’s not bringing in “loyalists”? You make no sense to me, Bithead.

    That’s because your snark detector needs some work.

    Heres a hint bitsy. They are not bringing him in to be an analyst or a spook

    Perhaps. Yet this is a job, where an understanding of how such things work is needful.. and Panetta doesn’t qualify.

    Typically when an organization is in need of a shakeup it is a good idea to bring in a competent outsider with no vested interest in internal organizational politics to do the job.

    T he operative word there is “competent”, a quality for this job, Panetta lacks.

    I don’t know if she’s a good manager or not nor how much actual intel experience she has but that seems a silly reason for her being ruled out. Didn’t Obama vote to expand FISA?

    Correct. To reject her on that basis now tells us that the appointment is a political one, as I’ve been saying. Obama has to toss a bone to the BDS suffering far left idiots, and this is his attempt.

  13. Triumph says:

    Great. Obama is putting a San Francisco liberal in charge of the CIA.

    I’m going to start brushing up on my Arabic since this is an open invitation to Iran to invade.

  14. Leisureguy says:

    Leon Panetta has tremendous respect here in California. Dianne Feinstein does not.

  15. charles johnson says:

    Triumph, I’m not sure why you pretend to be an irrational wacko, when the real thing, in the flesh, is posting on this very thread.

  16. Moonage says:

    Ahhh, so THAT’s the problem? You don’t believe in civil rights. Got it.

    When it comes to protecting my civil rights from those who don’t believe in civil rights, no, I don’t. You’re assuming that all societies believe you have the right to even breath simply because you were born. That’s just not the way it is. Ask the Christians living in Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, good parts of Africa, or those that lived under Communist Russia or China what kind of civil rights they enjoy. You only have those rights because our government has effectively prevented those societies from making us part of them. So, be snide all you want. Pretend ignorance all you want. But, the fact is what caused 9/11 was a lack of proper intelligence. Almost everyone agrees with that. We are now returning to leadership within the intelligence organization that puts other priorities ahead of gathering intelligence and using it. That’s why Panetta is the worst possible choice outside of Jamie Gorelick. I would have preferred Rahm Emanual be in charge of intelligence and Panetta in charge of Human Services. That would make sense to me. But, to put someone in charge of clandestine operations who’s background is civil rights is just a smack in national security’s face.

  17. Brett says:

    I’m going to start brushing up on my Arabic since this is an open invitation to Iran to invade.

    Iranians speak Farsi, not Arabic.

    Obama picked a more experienced fellow, Dennis Blair, to be his DNI and said something along the lines of “Blair will be my go-to guy on intelligence.” Perhaps he’s trying to strengthen the DNI at the expense of the agency directors?

    More likely, though, he just can’t find anyone not tainted to a certain degree, and decided to go for a competent manager instead.

  18. Michael says:

    Really? And other than Clinton, Panetta and Ogden, who exactly ahve I been complaining about, then? Let’s hear it.

    On this site?

    comment-534920
    comment-537272
    comment-541214
    comment-546726
    comment-523946
    comment-527797
    comment-537185
    comment-538733
    comment-539799
    comment-539813

    And surely there are plenty more, I just got bored checking previous articles.

  19. Bithead says:

    those don’t search very well. Who are you talking about?

    And before you level the charge of ‘partisan’ again, perhaps you’d better examine the number of Democrats who ahve come to the same conclusions as I as regards Panetta.

  20. Triumph says:

    Iranians speak Farsi, not Arabic.

    Whatever. All those languages sound like second-rate Spanish anyway.

    Of course Panetta won’t mind since his main accomplishment as a California liberal was to open the southern US border to armies of illegal immigrants.

  21. Leisureguy says:

    I have to say that Triumph’s comment perfectly embodies the GOP attitude toward facts.

  22. Davebo says:

    If there was a senior person at CIA now who could not only manage the agency, but also credibly convince the public that he or she had nothing to do with the hilarious farce that the CIA has become over the past 6 years I’d be all for giving them the top job.

    Sadly, no such person exists.

  23. Leisureguy says:

    Extremely interesting interview by Kathryn Jean Lopez on National Review Online with a former CIA operative on the Panetta pick. Worth reading.

  24. Brett says:

    Whatever. All those languages sound like second-rate Spanish anyway.

    Both Iranians and Arabs would probably find that offensive, and tell you that English is just a second-rate, corrupted form of German.

  25. Triumph says:

    Both Iranians and Arabs would probably find that offensive, and tell you that English is just a second-rate, corrupted form of German.

    Well, the arabs and Irannies can keep their jibber-jab, chicken scratch languages to themselves. Any semblance of freedom they have ever had is because of us.

    Their is a reason that American English is the world’s most popular language: it’s the most elegant, effective, and powerful language that has ever been devised.

    You can take your Esperanto and speak to nobody except a few French weirdos–everyone else in the world is showing their admiration of America by speaking our form of English (aka. they ain’t labouring with the UK’s lexical colours).

  26. Leisureguy says:

    Ugly facts ruin many a fine sentiment. The most commonly spoken languages in the world are Mandarin Chinese, Hindi, Spanish, and (in fourth place) English.

  27. Leisureguy says:

    Also, British English is probably more widely spoken than US English because of the extent of Britain’s one-time empire. English is the official language of the following countries—how many of those do you think use British English?

    Antigua and Barbuda, Australia, The Bahamas, Bangladesh, Barbados, Belize, Botswana, Brunei, Cameroon, Canada, Dominica, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Fiji, The Gambia, Ghana, Grenada, Guyana, Hong Kong (People’s Republic of China), India, Ireland, Jamaica, Kenya, Kiribati, Lesotho, Liberia, Malawi, Maldives, Malta, Marshall Islands, Maritius, Micronesia, Namibia, Nauru, New Zealand, Nigeria, Pakistan, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Rwanda, Saint Kitts and Nevs, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Samoa, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Singapore, Solomon Islands, Somolia, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Swaziland, Tanzania, Tonga, Trinidad and Tobago, Tuvalu, Uganda, United Kingdom, United States, Vanuatu, Zambia, Zimbabwe.

  28. Triumph says:

    Antigua and Barbuda, Australia, The Bahamas, Bangladesh, Barbados, Belize, Botswana, Brunei, Cameroon, Canada, Dominica, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Fiji, The Gambia, Ghana, Grenada, Guyana, Hong Kong (People’s Republic of China), India, Ireland, Jamaica, Kenya, Kiribati, Lesotho, Liberia, Malawi, Maldives, Malta, Marshall Islands, Maritius, Micronesia, Namibia, Nauru, New Zealand, Nigeria, Pakistan, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Rwanda, Saint Kitts and Nevs, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Samoa, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Singapore, Solomon Islands, Somolia, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Swaziland, Tanzania, Tonga, Trinidad and Tobago, Tuvalu, Uganda, United Kingdom, United States, Vanuatu, Zambia, Zimbabwe.

    Leisureguy:

    If you want to be an apologist for the lingusitic preferences of countries run by folks such as Mr. I-can-cure AIDS-only-on-Thursdays, Yahya Jammeh and Roobert Mugabe, be my guest.

    The bulk of those countries are dismal backwaters whose residents would kill to immigrate to the US–they would probably even be willing to stop spelling improperly as well.

  29. Leisureguy says:

    Triumph, it was you who said that the world in general was choosing English. I thought you would be heartened by the number of countries that have adopted English as the official language, but you seem to be displeased. Do you want them speaking English or not? My point was only that most countries probably use British English, not US English. And English is still spoken in the world less than the other three languages listed.