Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Obama's pick of Leon Panetta for CIA chief not such a surprise

Posted by John Keller

President-elect Barack Obama has ruffled congressional feathers and raised eyebrows over his choice of former White House chief of staff Leon Panetta to head the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

I'll concede perhaps the two biggest objections to Panetta to head the nation's foreign spy agency -- Panetta has zero experience in the intelligence community, and congressional leaders who oversee intelligence spending claim they were not consulted before Obama named Panetta.

In the first place, those fretting over Panetta's lack of intelligence experience are right. Panetta, White House chief of staff to Bill Clinton from 1994 to 1997, is an outsider to the CIA who doesn't know where the bodies are buried, and might be hard-pressed to find the people who do. I share the concern for his lack of intelligence experience.

In the second place, the Panetta pick has angered some influential leaders on Capitol Hill. U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, and claims Obama didn't consult with her before naming Panetta. She's not out of line to be miffed, and Obama should have handled this matter with a little more grace.

Obama is going to need influential leaders like Feinstein on his side, particularly early in his administration, and creating public ill-will like this does no one any good. Feinstein has got an ego like everybody else on the Hill, and Obama at this stage bruises Washington egos at his peril. Cold shoulders and slammed doors is not what the new president needs in his first days in office.

Feinstein and Panetta are not strangers. They're both California democrats. She's from San Francisco, and He's from Monterey just down the road. They served in Congress briefly in 1993, and both have been influential in the Democrat party. There may be some personal animosity between the two ... I don't know. I'd rather not speculate.

Feinstein is a former mayor of San Francisco and was an unsuccessful candidate for California governor in 1990. I was a college student in San Francisco, incidentally, on the day Feinstein become the city's mayor in fall 1978 when then-mayor George Moscone was assassinated, along with city supervisor Harvey Milk. A member of the San Francisco board of supervisors at the time, she was named to replace the slain Moscone. I remember it was the first Monday after Thanksgiving; what a day that was!

Panetta, meanwhile, was a California congressman from 1976 to 1993, where he chaired the House Budget Committee, and served in several other important congressional posts. From 1993 to 1994 he was director of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget before he became Clinton's chief of staff.

Suffice it to say that Panetta has been around the political block. I may not agree with his politics, but I think it's fair to say that anyone who can be White House chief of staff has to be politically savvy, unbelievably organized, a seasoned bureaucratic infighter, and a hard-nosed manager.

From this standpoint, I think Panetta just might be up to the administrative task of becoming Director of Central Intelligence (DCI).

So he's never been a spymaster before. That might not be such a big deal. The guy in the CIA who really oversees the spies is the agency's deputy director for operations (DDO). If Panetta can get that person on his side, then he just might be in good shape. He's a tough enough guy to bring obstinate career bureaucrats in the agency to heel, and he just might be able to put the Obama Administration's stamp on the CIA for years to come.

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