President-elect Barack Obama clearly had trouble filling out his intelligence team. His efforts to find someone to head the Central Intelligence Agency reportedly ran into snags when his first choices were tainted by connections to the Bush administration's wrong-headed interrogation and rendition policies. But Obama's selection of Leon Panetta for CIA director raises different concerns and is perhaps the weakest of the incoming president's nominations for top positions.
In a stark contrast to President Bush's preference for ideologues and loyalists, Obama has done a remarkable job of filling out his administration with highly qualified people. Choices like Nobel laureate in physics Steven Chu, for energy secretary, who has been a leader on climate change issues; and Timothy Geithner, president of the New York Federal Reserve Bank, for the Treasury Department, are prime examples of Obama tapping experience and expertise.
Compare these picks to Panetta, a former chief of staff for President Clinton and an eight-term congressman. He has a long connection to Democratic politics but little background in intelligence operations, beyond some work as an intelligence officer in the Army in the early 1960s. Was he really the best candidate?
Panetta is known as an exemplary manager, and to his credit he has been an outspoken critic of the CIA's enhanced interrogation program. But he lacks the depth of knowledge to pursue the goals of enhancing foreign intelligence gathering and analysis while reforming the CIA into an agency that comports with American and international legal standards.
It should catch the president-elect's attention that leading Democrats in Congress are expressing skepticism about Panetta. Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the new chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, telegraphed her disapproval in a terse statement — a view reportedly shared by the outgoing chair, Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia. Their concerns aren't universal, and there is praise coming from some comforting sources. Former Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, who once chaired the Senate intelligence panel and was a member for a decade, expressed confidence in Panetta. "He understands the needs of users of intelligence. That's very valuable as he shapes and leads the principle human intelligence agency of the United States," Graham told the online Washington Independent. Others who expressed support for the nomination pointed to how close Panetta is to the incoming president, potentially giving the CIA special prominence and positioning.
Throughout the history of the CIA there have been successful directors from both inside and outside the agency. William Casey came to the post after heading up Ronald Reagan's bid for president and was a highly political pick, though even he had experience in intelligence operations at the agency that was a forerunner of the CIA.
It is possible that Panetta, once he gets immersed in the agency, will turn out fine. But will the Obama administration have the time in this dangerous world for Panetta to get up to speed? A new president a bit short on experience in this area himself should have sought someone with more seasoning to lead an agency with more of its share of issues and turf battles.