New CIA Chief

Posted Jan. 08, 2009, at 4:35 p.m.

President-elect Obama’s nomination of Leon Panetta to head the CIA raised eyebrows among Washington, D.C. insiders. Though Panetta has experience in intelligence, he decidedly is an outsider. But that may be a good thing.

The move signals the Obama administration’s decision to take giant steps away from the Bush administration’s use of the agency, and from the agency’s recent track record, which is marked by failures of historic proportions. Most of the president-elect’s high-level appointments have been safe — more reassuring than radical. But if there is a place to move in a sharply different direction, it is at the CIA.

Though the intelligence agency did not miss the ball entirely on the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, it was not as vigilant, or as insistent, as it should have been. The CIA’s conclusion that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction is, in many ways, an even greater failing.

Mr. Panetta, whose stint as President Clinton’s chief of staff probably tops his resume, has had intelligence experience, perhaps most instructively during his service on the Iraq Study Group, which investigated the mistakes that led to the invasion, among other inquiries.

Richard Gay of Blue Hill, a former National Security Agency operations officer and former covert operative in the CIA clandestine service, gives Mr. Panetta high marks. “As Clinton’s chief of staff, he’d have had access to meetings the then-CIA director had with Clinton regarding intel-related foreign policy,” he said. In addition, Mr. Gay said, the president would have asked Mr. Panetta about his views on such matters. The chief of staff also would have had access to the presidential daily intelligence briefing from CIA, he added.

Further, if he is confirmed, Mr. Panetta will have access to the president, something some recent CIA directors have not enjoyed. That is key, Mr. Gay argues, to running a successful agency.

Mr. Panetta is less hawkish than other directors, he continued, but “that’s a good thing if you favor diplomacy over war. Diplomacy historically includes espionage, which is much less costly than war,” Mr. Gay asserted. Mr. Panetta is “a proven manager who can ‘speak truth to power,’” Mr. Gay believes.

And as many have observed, George H.W. Bush had little intelligence experience before he was named CIA director, yet his tenure is considered successful.

Mr. Panetta’s management skills impressed Sen. Olympia Snowe, who served with him in the House of Representatives. He is “highly esteemed for his intellect and as a skilled manager,” she said.

The new president, like those before him, is following in the dubious tradition of nominating trusted colleagues, or well-known and long-serving people of like views, to key positions in government, regardless of the relevant experience they have. One wonders what would happen if a president filled out his Cabinet with unknown bureaucrats who were experts in their fields.

That said, Mr. Panetta is a good pick. The most important skill he brings is an ability to be a strong administrator as he works to remake an agency that is vital in today’s global climate, and restores its stature with the public and government.

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