The incoming Obama administration has named Leon Panetta, of all people, as its nominee for the Director of Central Intelligence. Some observers are confused, to put it mildly, about the pick. The guy -- a former White House chief of staff and House Budget Committee chairman -- has a reputation for being a tough, competent manager, they say. But can he really be an effective CIA chief, with experience in the cloak-and-dagger world? What about those pledges, to keep the intelligence community out of politics?
"I find the choice of Leon Panetta to head the CIA a curious one," one well-connected former spy tells Danger Room. "On the one hand, if you are looking to pick a nation's top spook, it is generally a good idea to pick someone with more than a cursory exposure to the intelligence business. It is also more than a little annoying that we can't seem to find a CIA chief that hasn't spent all of their adult life playing politics."
On the other hand, if you are truly pushing an agenda of change, Panetta has the political and managerial chops to get the notoriously stiff bureaucratic wheels of the intelligence community moving in the right direction. Not being an establishment CIA or IC guy he is less likely to feel sentimental for the old boys and 'the way we've always done it' routine.
An ex-senior CIA manager tells Laura Rozen that the message of the Panetta appointment was clear: "The message is, 'I don't want to hear anything out of the CIA. Make it go away. No scandals. Keep it quiet,'" the former officer told me. "They put over there a guy who is a political loyalist, who will keep everything nice and quiet, but who won't know a good piece of intelligence from a shitty piece of intelligence, and wouldn't know a good intelligence officer" from a bad one.
An aide to former intelligence committee chairman Sen. Jay Rockefeller says much the same thing to CQ's Tim Starks. The Senator, he spills, "has some concerns about his selection. Not because he has any concerns about Panetta, whom he thinks very highly of, but because he has no intelligence experience and because he has believed this has always been a position that should be outside of the political realm."
SpyTalk's Jeff Stein says Panetta "is likely to give Republicans fresh ammunition to reopen questions about the Clinton administration's counterterrorism policies."Time's Joe Klein goes even further, saying the pick "smells a bit of desperation."
On the other hand, new Foreign Policy blogger David Rothkopf sees some wisdom in the selection, too. "It is a safe bet that he will be able to handle the operational challenges at Langley," he writes. "That said, it almost seems that more important than what he is known for is what he is not known for, more important than what is on his resume is what is not. He is not an old IC hand. He is not tainted by any links to Bush policies that were perceived as intelligence blunders or violations of human rights. [And he didn't spearhead any domestic spying -- ed.] He is the classic model of the wise man of great integrity who is called in to hit the restart button."
UPDATE: Rozen gets an e-mail from retired CIA deputy director Milt Bearden, who goes even further. He calling Panetta a "brilliant" choice. "It is not problematic that Panetta lacks experience in intelligence," Bearden e-mailed. "Intel experience is overrated. Good judgement, common sense, and an understanding of Washington is a far better mix to take to Langley than the presumption of experience in intelligence matters. Having a civilian in the intelligence community mix is, likewise, a useful balance. Why not DNI?" That the Director of National Intelligence -- who oversees the CIA, and the rest of the nation's spying apparatus.