Obama picks Leon Panetta to head C.I.A.
Monday, January 5, 2009
In a surprise move, President-elect Barack Obama has tapped Leon Panetta, former White House chief of staff and Monterey County’s favorite native son, to head the Central Intelligence Agency.
While critics see the moderate Democrat’s lack of hand-on intelligence experience as a red flag, local Dems say the CIA needs an outsider to reform an agency tarnished by the Bush administration’s policies of torture and extraordinary renditions. “Barack promised change and he has brought in a real outsider to what has been a real insider game,” says Rep. Sam Farr (D-Carmel).
Central Coast Assemblyman Bill Monning also calls Obama’s choice refreshing. “Panetta represents both newness but also grounded experience in Washington and the ways of Washington and bipartisanship,” he says.
Panetta served eight terms in the House representing the 17th District. He became President Bill Clinton’s chief budget advisor in 1993 before moving up to chief of staff where he regularly sat in on intelligence briefings. “He may not have been a producer of intelligence but he was a high-level consumer of intelligence for years,” says John Arquilla, professor of defense analysis at Naval Postgraduate School.
Arquilla says a thoughtful consumer of intelligence like Panetta wouldn’t have fallen for former director of Central Intelligence George Tenet’s assurance that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. “I want someone at the top that is not going to come in yelling ‘slam dunk’ when there are a lot of questions on the table,” Arquilla says.
If appointed, Panetta would go from directing the Leon & Sylvia Panetta Institute for Public Policy at CSUMB to managing an agency tasked with stamping out global terrorist networks. Although he has been out of the White House since 1997, Panetta has kept his connections on Capitol Hill, bringing policy makers to Monterey for the Panetta Lecture Series and recommending Iraq War interventions through the Iraq Study Group.
Panetta will certainly be among friends in an Obama administration. He has worked closely with former first lady Hillary Clinton, who is slated to become Secretary of State, and used to be the boss of Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s chief of staff.
“[Panetta’s appointment] would be a breath of fresh air to have somebody with more than just a passing knowledge with how Washington works and particularly at the executive level,” says Carmel Mayor Sue McCloud, a former CIA case officer.
Arquilla says he likes Panetta’s managerial skills and budget expertise, which played a significant role in eliminating the federal deficit under Clinton. Farr also welcomes a budget hawk. “The CIA has gotten bloated,” Farr says. “It’s been contracting out too much of its work.” Although the CIA doesn’t set national policy, Monning says Panetta’s values are a good fit for Obama, who wants to curtail torture and restore America’s image abroad. “At this point in the nation’s history and at this point in the CIA, integrity and ethics are paramount,” he says.
The Panetta Institute, which offers a Masters in Public Policy and spearheads a Congressional internship program, will continue in Panetta’s absence, says CSUMB President Dianne Harrison in a prepared statement. “I have been assured by Leon that Sylvia will continue to run the institute and it will be business as usual,” Harrison says.