Thoughts on Panetta at CIA

Let me say up front that I don’t have a problem with Barack Obama’s nomination of long time Clinton loyalist and former California congressman Leon Panetta to head the Central Intelligence Agency.

The two biggest dings against Panetta are that 1) Dianne Feinstein and Jay Rockefeller have their panties knotted over their not being consulted and 2) Panetta is not an intelligence professional.

I think both these objections are superficial though Panetta’s nomination is giving us a glimpse at what we can expect of the policy direction of the new administration.

The least serious objection is Mr. Panetta’s resume. When one looks at the history of the CIA and the directors there is really no evidence that intelligence professionals perform any better than your average charwoman. I’d like to note a few of the professionals and what they’re remembered for:

Roscoe Hillenkoetter. Missed the North Korean invasion of South Korea.
Allen W. Dulles. Bay of Pigs
William Colby. Missed the Yom Kippur War.
Stansfield Turner. Missed the overthow of the Shah.
George Tenet. Missed Pakistan’s nuclear test, India’s nuclear test, and, of course, 9/11.

This is not to say that the non-intelligence directors have covered themselves in glory. But glory may not even be a possibility here, While each of these director’s legacies has been tarnished by their failures, let’s not forget that all these failures have one common theme. They come from the same agency that a mere two years before the collapse of the Soviet Union was estimating that Soviet GDP would outstrip that of the US in 10 years. My colleague Warner Todd Huston has the Forrest Gump part right, but it doesn’t need paraphrasing.

It is worth noting that the campus of the Central Intelligence Agency at Langley, VA is named after a non-intelligence professional and former Congressman who many said did not have the background for the job.
The fact that Senators Rockefeller and Feinstein are dissatisfied is unsurprising. The weren’t consulted and they are miffed. They are also miffed for another reason. Panetta understands Congress and he has strong ties to Hillary Clinton, the Secretary of State designee. They would perfer an outsider for the position, someone who would be more malleable. Panetta presents a huge problem for the oversight committees in that he has no reason to fear them and has owes his position to a center of power that is not responsive to their whims.

When one looks at presidential appointments a theme follows. That tends to be that they pick strong figures to head areas where they don’t plan to concentrate and weaker figures, outsiders, to areas where they plan to focus their efforts. Bill Clinton appointed what was considered to be a strong defense and foreign policy team because he had pledged to focus on the economy “like a laser beam.” Les Aspin turned out to be a less than inspired choice at Defense but he was perceived as being someone who could produce the Peace Dividend. When George W. Bush took office the same pattern held because Bush was planning to focus on domestic, specifically education, policy.

I think we see the same shaping up with the Obama administration and from his picks one would say that he is going to focus on energy and environmental policy.

I’m not impressed by the idea that one hires heads of executive branch agencies as if one were hiring a mid-level manager. Political acumen and good management skills are much more important that technical expertise which should exist by the boatload in the agency. In the final analysis, Panetta is a fixer. Panetta is a signal that Obama doesn’t want surprises and has hired someone to keep the CIA out of the news.