Obama taps Leon Panetta to head the CIA

In one of his most surprising picks, President-elect Barack Obama will nominate Leon Panetta, a former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, to head the Central Intelligence Agency.

I am inclined to think that this was a smart choice. Senator Dianne Feinstein of California was already griping that Panetta lacks significant intelligence experience, but I don’t want an insider at the CIA now. As Spencer Ackerman noted, Panetta is on record opposing the use of torture:

We cannot simply suspend [American ideals of human rights] in the name of national security. Those who support torture may believe that we can abuse captives in certain select circumstances and still be true to our values. But that is a false compromise. We either believe in the dignity of the individual, the rule of law, and the prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, or we don’t. There is no middle ground.

We cannot and we must not use torture under any circumstances. We are better than that.

According to the New York Times, the Obama team was explicitly looking for someone without connections to controversial intelligence practices during George Bush’s presidency:

Aides have said Mr. Obama had originally hoped to select a C.I.A. head with extensive field experience, especially in combating terrorist networks. But his first choice for the job, John O. Brennan, had to withdraw his name amidst criticism over his role in the formation of the C.I.A’s detention and interrogation program after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Members of Mr. Obama’s transition also raised concerns about other candidates, even some Democratic lawmakers with intelligence experience. Representative Jane Harman of California, formerly the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, was considered for 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.

In disclosing the pick, officials pointed to Mr. Panetta’s sharp managerial skills, his strong bipartisan standing on Capitol Hill, his significant foreign policy experience in the White House and his service on the Iraq Study Group, the bipartisan panel that examined the war and made recommendations on United States policy. The officials noted that he had a handle on intelligence spending from his days as director of the Office and Management and Budget.

Panetta ran the OMB for Clinton before being promoted to chief of staff, where he would have been privy to the president’s daily intelligence briefings.

Feinstein seems way off-base to suggest Panetta lacks the qualifications for this job. Her comments to the New York Times suggest that she’s offended not to have been informed about this pick in advance.

I am pleasantly surprised that Obama was looking for someone without connections to Bush’s eavesdropping program, given the way Obama caved on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act last summer.

What do you think?

UPDATE: Laura Rozen quotes a bunch of former intelligence officials and finds a mixed reaction to the choice.

Also, Bleeding Heartland commenter amcsepboe provides more reaction and background.

SECOND UPDATE: Other bloggers are already compiling evidence to show that Feinstein and her colleague on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, repeatedly enabled the Bush administration on torture and wiretapping.

EmperorHadrian goes over Feinstein’s history of supporting pro-torture Bush nominees.

Kula2316 has lots more reaction to the Panetta appointment here. The more I hear about the people who don’t like the pick, the more I think Panetta is the right person for the job.

  • I thought that this was an interesting take...x

    But former intelligence analyst Greg Treverton, now with the Rand Corporation, said Panetta’s experience as a former White House chief of staff might give him a unique understanding of the presidency and its needs for intelligence. “One of my experiences with people like Panetta who have been chief of staff is that they have a clear sense of what is helpful to the president that most senior officials don’t,” Treverton told me. “They get it. What he could do and couldn’t do. And that’s an interesting advantage Panetta brings. Knowledge of what the presidential stakes are like, how issues arise, and what they need to be protected from, for better or worse.”

    Harry Truman, when the CIA was founded, wanted a newspaper. In Legacy of Ashes, Tim Werner writes that Truman wrote to a friend many years later:

    It was not intended as a ‘Cloak & Dagger Outfit!’ It was intended merely as a center for keeping the president informed on what was going on in the world.

    However, the thrilling (if less than successful) days of the OSS led to the covert ops prevailing. Richard Helms– a later CIA chief– wanted to know the world. Frank Wisner– who would head the Plans– wanted to run the covert ops. Wisner and Allen Dulles would tend to win out, and the U.S. never really established a legit intelligence operation. It was about a decade old when it got into the coup business in Iran and Guatemala, and it’s never looked back.

    So, I like this possibility:

    Picking an executive branch guy like Panetta may signal that Obama wants to push the CIA back toward something closer to Truman’s original vision of an agency who’s primary mission is to keep the president better informed than his international rivals.

    Links:

    http://blog.foreignpolicy.com/…

    http://thecable.foreignpolicy….

    I’d recommend Legacy of Ashes, by the way. It’s a bit dry at times, and Werner often comes across fairly biased against the CIA…but it’s a good history, and you get a great sense of how the cooler and wiser heads lost out in the early days of the Cold War CIA. We’re still paying for those mistakes today.

You need to signin or signup to post a comment.