Obama picks Leon Panetta to head C.I.A.
Thursday, January 8, 2009
Leon Panetta was never a secret agent, but the former White House chief of staff and Monterey County native son could become the nation’s head spook. President-elect Barack Obama has reportedly selected Panetta to head the Central Intelligence Agency.
While skeptics see the moderate Democrat’s lack of hands-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 on 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 newness but also grounded experience in Washington and bipartisanship,” he says.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, however, who will chair the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, was miffed by the selection. “My position has consistently been that I believe the agency is best served by having an intelligence professional in charge at this time,” Feinstein says in a prepared statement.
Panetta wasn’t Obama’s first choice. According to news reports, Obama wanted former CIA official John O. Brennan for the job but had to relinquish the choice because of Brennan’s ties to the CIA’s detention and interrogation program.
If the Senate approves his appointment, Panetta would bring widely lauded managerial skills and budget expertise to the position. 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, adding that 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.”
If appointed, Panetta would go from co-directing the Leon & Sylvia Panetta Institute for Public Policy at CSU Monterey Bay to leading 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 serving on 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] would be a breath of fresh air,” says Carmel Mayor Sue McCloud, a former CIA case officer, “somebody with more than just a passing knowledge with how Washington works and particularly at the executive level.”
Though Panetta’s specific views on intelligence are largely unknown, the Monterey native rebuked the use of torture in all circumstances in a Washington Monthly article last year. “Those who support torture may believe that we can abuse captives in certain select circumstances and still be true to our values,” Panetta wrote. “But that is a false compromise.”
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.