Why Panetta Is the Wrong Man to Lead CIA

On the morning of December 31, 1941, the flag of a four-star Navy admiral flew from the mast of the submarine USS Grayling in Pearl Harbor. It signaled the presence of Chester Nimitz, the former submariner who was assuming command of the U.S. Pacific Fleet.

The location of Nimitz’s change of command ceremony was symbolic for several reasons. Barely three weeks after the Japanese attack, most of the fleet’s capital ships were mired in the mud of Pearl Harbor, or en route to the West Coast for repairs. Admiral Nimitz later joked that the submarine was one of the few “decks” available for his ceremony.

Secondly, the Grayling was symbolic of the type of war that America would fight against Japan. While the U.S. would field the world’s largest -- and most powerful -- surface fleet during World War II, the silent service would decimate Japan’s merchant fleet, cripple industrial production, and, for good measure, sink scores of enemy naval vessels. Nimitz, who cut his teeth in the creaky boats of the pre-war era, was about to unleash unrestricted submarine warfare on the Empire of Japan.

But most importantly, Nimitz’s arrival at Pearl Harbor was emblematic of America’s determination to prevail against our enemies, whatever the cost. When it became clear that the Pacific theater needed a new leader, President Franklin Roosevelt had only one candidate. “Tell Nimitz to get the hell to Pearl and stay there until we win the war,” FDR instructed Navy Secretary Frank Knox. Twenty-four days after America entered the war, Roosevelt had already found his Pacific Fleet commander, taking an important step toward Japan’s ultimate defeat.

Seven decades later, we can only marvel at FDR’s decision making, especially in light of Leon Panetta’s nomination to run the CIA. During a time of war -- and facing threats no less menacing than the Japanese Empire -- President-elect Barack Obama selected a man who is singularly unqualified to lead a key intelligence agency.

It’s not that Mr. Panetta lacks experience; he’s been a fixture in Washington since the late 1960s, when he was a member of the Nixon administration. After switching parties, he became a Democratic congressman from California and later served as the OMB director and White House chief of staff for President Clinton.