There are, I suspect, quite a few jobs in government for which having no experience
is not a liability. But few would list CIA director among them. Which is why
Barack Obama's pick of Leon Panetta is causing so much consternation.
A former congressman, Mr. Panetta, 70, served as budget director and then as chief
of staff in the Clinton administration. But he's never spent a day in the
The outgoing chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Sen. Jay
Rockefeller (D-WVa), and the incoming chairman, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), are
cool to the choice. Both Ms. Feinstein and Mr. Rockefeller had recommended deputy
director Steven Kappes.
Mr. Obama originally had planned to tap John Brennan, who was head of the National
Counterterrorism Center at the time of his retirement in 2005. But the rumored
appointment ignited a storm of protest from left wingers who opposed the coercive
interrogation techniques the CIA used on some high level al Qaida prisoners.
"The fact that I was not involved in the decision-making process for any of these
controversial policies and actions has been ignored," Mr. Brennan said in a Nov. 26
letter withdrawing his name.
By yielding to Mr. Brennan's critics, Mr. Obama made it all but impossible to pick
anyone who held a senior position in the intelligence community during the Bush
administration, which may be why Mr. Kappes was passed over.
If you think it dangerous, at a time when we are engaged in two wars, to have a
novice at the CIA, then you're likely appalled by the Panetta nomination.
But if you think of the CIA as a rogue, dysfunctional agency that needs to be reined
in, you may think Mr. Obama's choice is inspired.
Many of those worried about Mr. Panetta have an outdated view of the importance of
the CIA. After 9/11 a huge new layer of bureaucracy was imposed on the intelligence
community. This was mostly stupid, because there was too much bureaucracy already.
But it made the CIA much less important.
Most of the intelligence we gather is collected by the National Security Agency,
through its electronic eavesdropping, and by the satellite photos taken by the
National Geospatial Intelligence Agency.
The CIA essentially got out of the HUMINT (human intelligence) business when the
Clinton administration slashed its budget in the early 1990s. Most of such little
intelligence as the CIA now gathers comes from interrogation of prisoners. But most
prisoner interrogations are done by the military.
The CIA does still have its analysis branch, which has missed most of the major
developments of the last 20 years. And analysis work has been migrating to the
various multi-agency intelligence centers established after 9/11.
The real head cheese is the Director of National Intelligence. For DNI, Mr. Obama
has selected retired Admiral Dennis Blair. He's a former commander of Pacific
Command and a former associate director of the CIA, a Rhodes scholar who once
water-skied behind the destroyer he was commanding. Admiral Blair doesn't need Mr.
Panetta's advice on intelligence matters.
But as a skilled bureaucratic infighter whose loyalty will be to the president and
not to the CIA, Mr. Panetta may be, thinks Michael Ledeen, just the right guy "to
watch Obama's back at a place that's full of stilettos and a track record for
attempted presidential assassination second to none."
Because I think the CIA requires wholesale reform, I think better of the Panetta
nomination than most other commentators do. But I have two huge concerns.
It was Mr. Panetta, as President Clinton's budget director, who gutted our HUMINT
capability. And Mr. Panetta's eagerness to define anything that makes terrorists
uncomfortable as "torture" means we'll be getting precious little information from
Mr. Obama is taking a big chance. If there is a successful terrorist attack on the
U.S. during his watch, this is the appointment that will doom his presidency.