I have to admit that Leon Panetta was not my first guess for whom Barack Obama would pick to head the CIA—or my second or third or fourth guess. But I gather he wasn't anyone else's, either—or just about anyone else's. Why should he have been? He served in the House for some 16 years and chaired the Budget Committee—valuable experience in the way government works, but hardly anything specific to the CIA. He served as budget director in the Clinton administration and then as Bill Clinton's White House chief of staff. Did he learn anything valuable about the CIA or intelligence activities in those capacities? I expect he probably did, although how much I do not know. They can't have been his central preoccupations. He served on the Iraq Study Group in 2006. Fine, but it didn't exactly recommend the surge strategy that has worked so well.
But I think something like the Panetta appointment was in the offing once the political left put its mark on the Obama administration by vetoing the nomination of intelligence veteran John Brennan as CIA director. The objection, apparently, was that Brennan was associated somehow with and hopelessly compromised by "torture" or other improper intelligence gathering methods. Those who would like to see Bush administration appointees prosecuted for actions they took to protect the nation after the September 11 attacks would have been undercut by the presence in the Obama administration of a CIA director who served in an intelligence position at the same time.
Hence, the chief qualification for CIA director became no background in intelligence. Given that imperative, Leon Panetta is probably about as good a choice as anyone could hope for—intelligent, hard-working, even affable, experienced in dealing with very smart people who are also very high maintenance. Michael Ledeen tends to agree. And Angelo Codevilla makes an additional point that, from my vantage rather far from intelligence affairs, makes sense to me:
Leon Panetta may not know very much about foreign affairs or defense matters. He is wholly unacquainted with the questions and quarrels that have roiled the US intelligence community for a half century. But, as veteran political warrior, he will do what President Obama expects of him: prevent CIA from making war upon him as it made war on George W. Bush. When Bush appointed Porter Goss as CIA director to stop that war, CIA's old boys somehow convinced Bush to fire him. Panetta's appointment however tells CIA's old boys that if they trouble the Obama team, they will be the ones fired.
During the Bush administration, the CIA quite astonishingly authorized the publication of books by CIA personnel sharply critical of administration policy and CIA personnel leaked copiously against the White House. Once upon a time, liberals were alarmed by the possibility of political maneuvering by CIA right-wingers. Maybe they are again.