The Cable

00-Huh? Former intel officials react to Panetta CIA pick

Early reaction to the news today that President-Elect Obama plans to name former congressman and Clinton White House chief of staff Leon Panetta to be his CIA director was greeted by intelligence watchers in town with something approaching mystification. "Panetta???" came one e-mail. Panetta doesn’t have an intelligence background. The latest word from some who ...

Early reaction to the news today that President-Elect Obama plans to name former congressman and Clinton White House chief of staff Leon Panetta to be his CIA director was greeted by intelligence watchers in town with something approaching mystification. "Panetta???" came one e-mail.

Panetta doesn’t have an intelligence background. The latest word from some who had been informally advising the Obama campaign on intelligence matters the past few days was that the Obama people were going to let expected Director of National Intelligence nominee retired Adm. Dennis Blair have a big hand in picking the CIA director (and take responsibility for the decision). The Obama people, it was said, were inclined to pick someone "not political" in order to avoid some of the unhappiness of, say, the Porter Goss period. And given how the Obama team was hammered by the left for considering former senior intelligence official John Brennan to be CIA director, Obama would be disinclined to pick someone closely associated with the intelligence controversies of the recent Bush-Tenet era. In the end, only that latter hunch proved correct.

"My initial reaction is, I am sorry that there was felt a need to replace the current director," former senior CIA official Paul Pillar, now with Georgetown University told me. "Gen. [Michael] Hayden is a military and intelligence but primarily intelligence professional who has performed his duties in each job he has held in an honorable fashion, so far as I have knowledge of them."

Asked if the Obama team was making a politically safe choice over someone with known deeper experience on intelligence matters, Pillar demurred. "There has been enough controversy over enough of these issues involving the intelligence community. And there has been enough expectation and demand for change, that I expect it was felt amongst the president elect’s advisors, whatever their personal view of what is right, that the political context and environment was such that a change was required."

A former senior CIA manager said 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.

But former intelligence analyst Greg Treverton, now with the Rand Corporation, said Panetta’s experience as a former White House chief of staff might give him a unique understanding of the presidency and its needs for intelligence. "One of my experiences with people like Panetta who have been chief of staff is that they have a clear sense of what is helpful to the president that most senior officials don’t," Treverton told me. "They get it. What he could do and couldn’t do. And that’s an interesting advantage Panetta brings. Knowledge of what the presidential stakes are like, how issues arise, and what they need to be protected from, for better or worse."

Retired CIA deputy director for the East Europe division Milt Bearden said Panetta is 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?"

The Panetta choice also makes sense to him, said Philip Zelikow, a former counselor to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (and Foreign Policy writer). "The issues of presidential trust and clean hands are, at this moment in history, most important," Zelikow said by e-mail. "And even an ‘intelligence professional’ would have to rely on others in many ways. … So Obama and his team have made a certain kind of tradeoff." 

Initial Hill reaction was one of puzzlement, and consternation by at least one key senator that she had not been consulted on the choice. "I was not informed about the selection of Leon Panetta to be the CIA director," incoming chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) was cited by the Los Angeles Times. "My position has consistently been that I believe the agency is best served by having an intelligence professional in charge at this time." Confirmation prep teams, take note. 

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