Feature

Obama’s CIA pick panned

Does former White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta have the credentials to head the Central Intelligence Agency?

President-elect Barack Obama this week named former White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta to head the Central Intelligence Agency, drawing bipartisan fire from critics who said Panetta lacks credentials for the sensitive post. Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Jay Rockefeller, the incoming and outgoing heads of the Intelligence Committee, said they were troubled that Panetta had never worked inside the intelligence community. They also complained that they hadn’t been consulted before news of the nomination leaked. Obama aides said that as Bill Clinton’s chief of staff, Panetta had demonstrated strong management skills and had evaluated intelligence “on a day-to-day basis.”

In a swipe at the Bush administration, Obama said Panetta was “committed to breaking with some of the past practices that had tarnished the image” of U.S. intelligence services. Panetta has described the Bush administration’s aggressive interrogation policies as “illegal, immoral, dangerous, and counterproductive.” At the same time, Obama said he planned to keep the CIA’s No. 2 official, Stephen Kappes, a highly regarded agency veteran.

In another bump in a generally smooth transition, Obama’s nominee for commerce secretary, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, withdrew from consideration, citing an ongoing investigation into state contracts awarded to a campaign donor.

Panetta “is perhaps the weakest of the incoming president’s nominations,” said the St. Petersburg, Fla., Times in an editorial. In contrast to other, “highly qualified” nominees, Panetta is merely a Democratic loyalist without the inside knowledge needed to improve intelligence-gathering in an extremely dangerous world.

Actually, Panetta has the kind of inside knowledge that matters most, said David Ignatius in The Washington Post. The agency already has plenty of intelligence professionals. What it needs at the top is “a Washington heavyweight” with “the political muscle to fend off the agency’s critics and second-guessers.” As a former member of Congress who is close to Obama, he is well-positioned to be a vigorous advocate for his agency.

Obama certainly shouldn’t waste much time smoothing the Senate’s ruffled feathers, said Glenn Greenwald in Salon.com. For the past eight years, Feinstein and Rockefeller have looked the other way as intelligence operatives tortured prisoners and spied on U.S. citizens. “Few things could reflect better on Panetta’s selection than the fact that Feinstein and Rockefeller—two of the most Bush-enabling Senators—are unhappy with it.”

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