Given how badly the Obama transition team mishandled its previous pick to head the CIA, news that President-elect Obama intends to nominate Leon Panetta, Bill Clinton’s former chief of staff, to this sensitive post is a stunner –- and a relief.
Some students of the clandestine world were immediately critical: California Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, for instance, the incoming chairwoman of the Senate’s intelligence panel, said she had long thought the job should go to an “intelligence professional.” Had team Obama not bothered to brief her in advance about its choice?
Other current and former members of the 16 fractious agencies known collectively as the “intelligence community” were more enthusiastic about the choice. Former CIA director George Tenet, for one, is rumored to be delighted with the pick.
The fact that Panetta has virtually no direct experience in the intelligence world seems not to trouble them. Robert Richer, who until recently was the second-ranking official in the agency’s clandestine service, told me that Panetta would bring “a very strong policy background to the intelligence community.” Equally important, he added, Panetta, as an early campaign insider, has Obama’s ear. For the CIA, such stature and access are crucial. Intelligence insiders well remember former director James Woolsey’s lament about having been able to see President Clinton only twice during his tenure.
The selection of Panetta to replace Michael Hayden, of course, adds yet another “Clintonista” to the incoming administration’s senior ranks, and not just to any job. Most veterans of Washington service consider this post in particular a minefield. But given the lengthy list of “formers” on his C.V. –- former 8-term congressman, former director of the powerful Office of Management and Budget, former White House chief of staff–- Panetta is unlikely to be a pushover. Surely he learned something about the agency’s strengths and failings when he got briefings from the CIA as Clinton’s chief of staff and from his membership on the Iraq Survey Group, which examined President Bush’s invasion of Iraq and issued a raft of policy recommendations for change.
Another advantage, supporters argue, is that as a veteran of the congressional club, swift confirmation is virtually assured.
Yet many intelligence veterans argue that Panetta’s lack of direct experience, particularly with clandestine operations, is likely to be problematic. Morale at the agency is low, only partly because of its recent analytical failures, while terrorism challenges are vast and growing. Creative, but inherently risky intelligence operations are required to keep the nation safe. Will Panetta know enough to support such missions while still holding those who violate agency rules and standards accountable?
Many were also disappointed that Obama caved so quickly to pressure from the left and leaned on his initial top pick–-John Brennan, the former director of the National Counterterrorism Center –- to withdraw from consideration. By dumping a veteran widely respected among intelligence professionals on grounds that he was too closely associated with the Bush administration’s faulty pre-Iraq war intelligence and its policies on torture, the Obama transition team effectively eliminated anyone who had served in a significant intelligence post in the past 8 years. Never mind that intelligence officials do not make policy and that the extent of Brennan’s involvement with such programs remains unclear.
Nor did transition team insiders want to appoint yet another retired military officer to a senior post, having already nominated Gen. James Jones as national security adviser and with retired Admiral Dennis Blair set to be named for the nation’s top intelligence job — the director of national intelligence.
Many who support Panetta say that he will work smoothly with Blair and Jones, he will hold his own in what is likely to be a tough environment for American intelligence. But with limited resources due to the current economic collapse, the cost-cutting skills Panetta mastered at OMB are likely, alas, to come in all too handy at the agency, yet another cause for concern.