What Obama's Pick of Leon Panetta May Signal About the CIA

The respected Washington figure would bring new oversight and might smooth relations with Congress.

FE_DA_090106panetta.jpg
By SHARE

Leon Panetta will reportedly take the reins of the Central Intelligence Agency, an organization on the front lines of the fight against international terrorism and hostile nations that has seen its methods frequently criticized during the campaign.

Panetta has a long and distinguished résumé, having served as a Democratic congressman, White House chief of staff, and a member of the Iraq Study Group in 2006. But the 70-year-old consummate Washington insider has little background in the intelligence world, which has been hostile in the past to outsiders at the helm.

CIA officials had no comment on the reports that President-elect Obama plans to name Panetta as the next director.

The tapping of Panetta may indicate the difficulty that Obama has had finding a suitable candidate unmarred by past associations with the controversial interrogation and surveillance tactics that the now president-elect crusaded against with such vigor on the campaign trail. Obama's reported first pick for the job was John Brennan, who withdrew his name from consideration when concerns were raised about his role in the crafting of the agency's detention and interrogation program after the terrorist attacks in 2001.

Panetta is likely to bring a new approach. Last year, in an op-ed for a California newspaper, he blasted the Bush administration policy exempting the CIA and other intelligence agencies from adhering to the U.S. Army field manual on torture. "Torture is illegal, immoral, dangerous, and counterproductive," he wrote. "All forms of torture have long been prohibited by American law and international treaties respected by Republican and Democratic presidents alike."

Current CIA chief Michael Hayden is well liked within the agency. The retired four-star Air Force general's previous assignment was at the head of the secretive National Security Agency where he was responsible for administering the domestic communications interception program called "warrantless wiretapping" by critics and "terrorist surveillance" by supporters. There is perennial discussion in the intelligence community about whether the country is best served with a civilian or a military officer leading the CIA.

Panetta will probably have little difficulty being confirmed by the Senate. One Democratic official on Capitol Hill, unwilling to speak for attribution before a public announcement, said that Panetta has strong bipartisan support and that his record as a "mover, manager, and skilled Washington operator" makes him well suited to steering the clandestine service. "I don't think he'll fear congressional oversight, either," said the official.

But some intelligence watchers say that putting a noted manager (but not an intelligence veteran) like Panetta in charge could signal that the Obama administration may try to bring the CIA more tightly into the fold of the larger intelligence community. The various agencies that compose the U.S. intelligence community, including the CIA, were placed under the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in 2004. Obama reportedly has already tapped retired Adm. Dennis Blair to be the head of that office.

It is difficult to judge the performance of CIA directors, of course, given that so few of their successes or failures see the light of day, even long after the events have faded into history. But intelligence experience is not always an indicator of success as agency director.

John McCone and George H. W. Bush had no intelligence experience when they took charge of the spy agency, and both were regarded as successful. Former Rep. Porter Goss, who served 10 years in Latin America for the CIA before entering politics, was named director in 2004 but abruptly resigned in 2006, reportedly over conflicts with the DNI.

One of Panetta's first tests will be managing the relationship between the DNI and the CIA, an area where his past experience as a managerial troubleshooter may serve him well.

Panetta began his government service as a Republican, first as an aide to a senator, then later in a brief and tumultuous tenure as the director of the Office for Civil Rights for the Nixon administration (Panetta was reportedly pushed out for fighting too ardently for civil rights in the South). He quit in 1970 to run for Congress in his native California as a Democrat.