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Leon Panetta named C.I.A. director

Interesting choice. The New York Times‘ caucus blog reports: President-elect Barack Obama has selected Leon E. Panetta, the former congressman and White House chief of staff, to take over the Central Intelligence Agency, an organization that Mr. Obama criticized during the campaign for using interrogation methods he decried as torture, Democratic officials said Monday. Panetta ...

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Interesting choice. The New York Times‘ caucus blog reports:

President-elect Barack Obama has selected Leon E. Panetta, the former congressman and White House chief of staff, to take over the Central Intelligence Agency, an organization that Mr. Obama criticized during the campaign for using interrogation methods he decried as torture, Democratic officials said Monday.

Panetta has managerial chops and a close relationship with Obama but virtually no hands-on intelligence experience. Perhaps more importantly, he’s not tainted by associations with Bush-era detention, interrogation of surveillance policies like some of the other candidates who were considered. He’s also a much bigger name.

Langley may be in for a shakeup.

Update: Our new colleague David Rothkopf calls the pick a reminder to the “knowledgeable intel community (IC) insiders just how wrong they can be about key issues.”

Update 2: Another of our new colleagues, Laura Rozen, has reactions from former intelligence officials over at The Cable. RAND’s Greg Treverton tells her that Panetta’s White House experience might actually be more valuable than time spent in the intel trenches:

“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.”

This makes sense. In his CIA history “Legacy of Ashes,” Tim Weiner writes that Harry Truman originally envisioned the agency’s mission as producing a “secret newspaper” for the president’s eyes only. As the CIA’s secretive culture developed during the Cold War and emphasis shifted away from simple intelligence gathering toward special operations, the mission got a lot more complicated.

Picking an executive branch guy like Panetta may signal that Obama wants to push the CIA back toward something closer to Truman’s original vision of an agency who’s primary mission is to keep the president better informed than his international rivals.

If so, it won’t be easy. The diverging views in Rozen’s post gives a good preview of how this fight may play out.

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

 Twitter: @joshuakeating
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