More than a few spooks, current and former, are shaking their heads over the appointment of Leon Panetta as the next CIA Director.
Mr. Panetta is the consummate Washington insider who is best know as Bill Clinton's Chief of Staff during the Monica Lewinsky episode. Before that, he was Clinton's first Director of the Office of Management and Budget and a Democratic Congressman from California for 16 years, serving primarily on the Budget and Agriculture Committees.
In the early days of his political life, Panetta was actually a Republican, working as an aide to California Senator Thomas Kuchel before joining the Nixon Administration. During his first stint in Washington, Panetta served as assistant to the Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare and later ran the Office for Civil Rights. He left the administration--and the GOP--in 1971, accusing the White House of being "soft" on enforcement of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts.
Readers will note a common theme in Panetta's professional life: the wholesale lack of intelligence experience. While Mr. Panetta is certainly acquainted with the intel community and his capabilities, he has never served (let alone, led) an intelligence organization, or served on a Congressional panel charged with its oversight.
To be fair, many CIA Directors have come from outside the intelligence community. And, some of them, such as John McCone, who served during the Kennedy Administration, have performed admirably. At the other extreme, some of the career intelligence officers (or those with prior intel experience) have been miserable failures. So, Panetta's limited exposure to the intelligence community doesn't disqualify him for the CIA post, or predict failure during his tenure.
But these are critical days for our intelligence apparatus, including the agency that Mr. Panetta will lead. When the Bush Administration entered office eight years ago, it inherited a CIA that was dysfunctional, highly politicized and woefully inept at its critical missions of intelligence collection and analysis.
Since then, three different men--George Tenet, Porter Goss and Michael Hayden--have tried to reform the agency, with varying degrees of success. During their respective tenures, the CIA has added thousands of new operatives and analysts, and there is some evidence that the new hires (and their more experienced colleagues) are making a difference. After all, there hasn't been a terrorist attack on American soil since 9-11, and the CIA deserves some credit for that remarkable record.
Still, the agency is far from healthy. Elements within the CIA have pursued a strident, anti-administration agenda, under-cutting President Bush's policies on Iran's nuclear program and other issues. Case in point: the intelligence community's infamous 2007 assessment of Tehran's nuclear ambitions--largely based on CIA analysts--which effectively ended any chances for U.S. military action against Iran. The long-term consequences of that analytical power play have yet to be determined.
To advance the reform agenda at Langley, the CIA clearly needs an experienced hand. But there are more compelling reasons to put a career intelligence officer in charge of the agency. The threat facing our nation remains very real; a recent study suggests that terrorists will stage a chemical or biological attack inside the United States during the next five years. Meeting that challenge requires a leader who doesn't need on the job training, and will hold his organization to the highest standards of tradecraft and professional conduct.
Mr. Panetta is a capable administrator and experienced political operative, but he's the wrong man to lead the CIA at this critical juncture. His nomination also reflects badly on President-elect Barack Obama and his transition team. Most of his national security team was announced last month. Delaying the CIA announcement until the New Year suggests that the appointment was something of an afterthought, or that the job was rejected by more qualified candidates.
Obviously, the job of CIA Director doesn't carry the power it once did. The agency chief now works for the Director of National Intelligence, who oversees the functions of 16 organizations that form our intel system. But in a community of "equals" some agencies are more important than others, and the Central Intelligence Agency clearly falls in that former category.
The next CIA chief faces three herculean challenges: keeping the agency fully engaged in the war on terror; reigning in political elements that want to dictate U.S. policy, and avoiding another intelligence debacle like the one that preceded the 9-11 attacks. It's a tall order for any director, but those tasks are made more difficult by today's economic uncertainly, which may result in budget cutbacks for the intelligence community.
As a former OMB Director, Mr. Panetta is a veteran of federal budget wars. But even if he preserves the CIA's share of the intel pie, there is no evidence that he has the background or expertise to employ those assets in the most effective manner. Just one more reason that the Panetta nomination is so disappointing--and potentially dangerous.
ADDENDUM: Mr. Obama is entitled to the CIA Director of his choice. But the selection of Leon Panetta is a reflection of the next commander-in-chief and his own, limited intelligence experience. A few weeks ago, the president-elect named retired Navy Admiral Dennis Blair as the new Director of National Intelligence. Like Mr. Panetta, Admiral Blair has a long resume as a leader and administrator. But in terms of intel, his only experience is as a consumer.
The big-picture view is even more disturbing. President-elect Obama, a man who is decidedly short on national security experience, has appointed a pair of neophytes to fill our most important intelligence positions. Those men, in turn, are supposed to advise him on the most critical (and sensitive) intel and national security issues. That planned "arrangement" doesn't exactly inspire confidence.
And, for what it's worth, California Senator Diane Feinstein, Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, isn't exactly pleased with the Panetta nomination.
Others have suggested that Panetta may be a sop to liberal bloggers and activists who torpedoed John Brennan, the CIA veteran said to be Mr. Obama's first choice to run the agency. Brennan was unacceptable to those elements of the Obama coalition because of his support for the "forceful" interrogation of suspected terrorists.
If Panetta is a peace offering to the moon-bat brigade, it's all the more reason to oppose his confirmation as CIA Director.