Why Leon Panetta?

The choice of Leon E. Panetta as new head of the CIA has created not only shock waves in Washington, but an obvious lack of enthusiasm on the part of some influential Democrats. Taken by surprise, Senator Dianne Feinstein told the New York Times “I believe the agency is best-served by having an intelligence professional in charge at this time.” And Leon Panetta may be smart, a good manager and an overseer of budgets, but he is anything but an intelligence professional.

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His only work in intelligence, evidently, took place between 1964 and 1966, when he was in the U.S. Army at Camp Ord in California. When he served in Congress he did not sit on the House Intelligence Committee, and a review of the CIA budget when he was Chief of State in Bill Clinton’s White House is hardly enough to qualify him as a man who had, as the Times reporters wrote, “hands-on intelligence experience.”

His choice by President-elect Obama, therefore, is much more than an “unusual” one, which is how a lot of people are characterizing it. So why did Barack Obama pick Panetta? First, it falls in line with his  decision to mine the former Clinton Administration for seasoned Washington operatives, and to avoid having a job search for someone without political chops. 

The problem is that especially in today’s world, chief of the CIA is a position that must be held by an individual with both intelligence and counter-terrorist experience. Instead of picking such a person, it appears that Obama put politics first: he is seeking above all to appoint someone who had no connections whatsoever with interrogation techniques vigorously opposed by the Left, or the domestic wiretapping program initiated by the outgoing administration. But counter-terrorism and intelligence will likely be one of the most important jobs the new CIA chief will confront. Selecting an individual whose only seeming qualification is opposition to Bush policies is hardly sufficient reason for such an appointment. 

Indeed, Obama might have considered Rep. Jane Harman (D, CA) once the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, but she backed Bush policies such as the wiretapping. Of course, after opposing it, candidate Obama changed his mind and endorsed it himself. But clearly, he feels appointing someone like Harman would  ignite old wounds and debates and give the Left another reason to not stand united with him in the first difficult months of his new administration.

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Panetta was also a member of the Iraq Study Group. To some people, that proves he had solid foreign policy credentials. To others, however, the Study Group’s conclusions- particularly its recommendations for negotiations with Iran and Syria- and its negative assessment of the possibility of a positive outcome- was proof of its dovish and “realist” outlook.  Since it was published, the surge changed conditions on the ground in Iraq, and made much of its recommendations obsolete.

My prediction: Panetta will get tough questioning, but in the end, will win Senate approval for the appointment.

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