The pundits are still buzzing over President Elect Barack Obama’s surprise pick of former Clinton White House chief of staff Leon Panetta as his CIA director. And, in the nature of modern vetting, some think it’s a good choice, others think it’s a poor one.
But it was a surprise. So now the question becomes: just why did Obama pick a man who is a quintessential Democratic centrist but who doesn’t have solid experience in the intelllgence biz? Newsweek provides some answers:
The choice is somewhat surprising in that Panetta has no specific background managing a sprawling and esoteric intelligence bureaucracy like the CIA, or supervising and planning byzantine undercover operations. But he was a senior Democratic congressman for many years and served in the Clinton administration first as director of the Office of Management and Budget and then as White House chief of staff. In the latter post, Panetta sat in on the daily intelligence briefing giving to the president by the CIA–a task that has now been shifted to the office of the national-intelligence czar, which was created under intelligence-reform legislation approved by Congress after 9/11. As budget director, he had direct involvement in financial issues related to intelligence. Panetta also served on the Iraq Study Group and publicly opposed President Bush’s “surge” of troops in 2006.
Among Obama’s reasons for choosing Panetta, one of the sources said, were his reputation as a “first-rate manager,” his White House experience handling issues related to “intelligence support” and his history of being able to establish friendly and cooperative relations between the executive branch and Capitol Hill. While unusual, the Panetta appointment will not come as a complete shock to those who have been following Obama’s somewhat fraught efforts to produce a relatively noncontroversial but nonetheless highly respected candidate to head the always-controversial CIA.
And the bottom line?
Last week, word began to circulate on the spy grapevine that Obama was looking to fill the CIA director’s job with a highly respected senior figure with extensive government experience who had no spy-world baggage but would likely sail through the confirmation process. In Panetta, the president-elect probably found a candidate who fits those specifications, though reservations are already being expressed among intelligence experts about the nominee’s lack of expertise in what some have called the world’s second oldest profession–spying.
Panetta wasn’t entirely loved by all Democrats in 2008. He raised eyebrows — and probably inspired some of the words caught on tape used by Illinois big-haired governor — when in February, he criticized the Hillary Clinton camp for not properly assessing Obama’s appeal — and compared Clinton’s pollster to Republican political maven Karl Rove.
Panetta will now likely come under fire for his lack of experience, but he has been around enough and is respected enough so that unless there’s something untoward in his past or some kind of investigation going on (read that R-i-c-h-a-r-d-s-o-n) he will be confirmed after taking some obligatory hits from the old and new news media. Panetta has enjoyed the reputation of being one of the more level headed players on the national scene, in either party, so he could prove a useful component — with gravitas versus hubris — to the larger Obama team.
UPDATE: See Andrew Sullivan.
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.