The announcement that Leon Panetta, former Democratic congressman and White House chief of staff during the Clinton years, is President-elect Barack Obama’s choice to head the CIA has caused significant consternation.
To be sure, as White House chief of staff, Panetta kept a notably unruly Clinton White House more or less on track — evidence that he is a competent manager. He is not associated with the controversial use of “enhanced interrogation” techniques, or torture. He is an outsider slated to lead an agency that could use reform, and he will probably have the ear of the president. And as White House chief of staff he sat in on intelligence briefings.
On the other hand, as Amy Zegart, who teaches at UCLA and wrote the recent book, “Spying Blind: The CIA, the FBI, and the Origins of 9/11,” told the Orange County Register, this is a “very strange choice.” During his 16 years in the House, Panetta never served on an intelligence or foreign affairs committee and has expressed little interest in intelligence issues.
To reform a secrecy-obsessed agency like the CIA, one needs to know some deep secrets and to have insider information about certain ugly truths, failings and weaknesses. Otherwise one will have little idea even about what questions to ask or where to begin, other than fiddling with organizational charts.
The choice of Panetta to head the CIA suggests undue haste and perhaps even panic. It also suggests that Obama has little interest in or knowledge about intelligence and no desire to compensate for his own lack of knowledge by seeking a knowledgeable spy chief. It’s a dangerous enough world that this could be genuinely tragic.