The Wall Street Journal reports that Leon Panetta made over $700,000 in speaking fees to interest groups last year, some of which came from firms tied to the economic collapse. Will this derail the former Clinton chief of staff from taking over at the CIA? If his lack of experience didn’t put him at risk, this looks unlikely to matter:
The White House’s nominee for Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Leon Panetta, has earned more than $700,000 in speaking and consulting fees since the beginning of 2008, with some of the payments coming from troubled financial firms and from a firm that invests in contractors for federal national security agencies, according to financial disclosures released Wednesday.
Mr. Panetta received $56,000 from Merrill Lynch & Co. for two speeches and $28,000 for a speech for Wachovia Corp., according to disclosures released ahead of Thursday’s scheduled Senate hearing on Mr. Panetta’s nomination.
Both Merrill and Wachovia reported big losses last year and were acquired by larger firms. The Wachovia honorarium was dated Oct. 30, and the last Merrill Lynch honorarium was dated Oct. 11, according to disclosure forms filed by Mr. Panetta in connection with his nomination. At the time, Bank of America had agreed to a rescue of Merrill Lynch; Wachovia had agreed to be acquired by Wells Fargo & Co.
Mr. Panetta’s disclosure form illustrates how retired politicians commonly make money giving speeches and consulting for prominent companies with significant interests before the government. That was one element in the controversy over the cabinet nomination of former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, who withdrew Tuesday.
It was one element, sure, but hardly the most important element. Daschle failed to pay taxes on his income and on the limousine service his employer provided him, which created far more trouble for Daschle than just earning speaking fees. That made Daschle the ultimate “limousine liberal” and turned his appointment into an embarrassment for Barack Obama, and Daschle finally had the good sense to leave as quietly as possible under the circumstances.
Accepting speaking fees from corporate clients, though, should present few problems for Panetta. It doesn’t break any laws, and as far as is known, Panetta paid his taxes, which already puts him in the upper percentiles of Obama appointments. Furthermore, Panetta’s speaking fees didn’t come from companies doing business in the spy sector. Why not? Because Panetta never had anything to do with intelligence work before now, so no one would pay to hear what he thinks about it.
No one, that is, until Barack Obama. For some reason, Obama decided that in a time of war against terrorist networks, what the CIA really needs as a leader is a political hatchet man with no experience in their work at all, except for reading some of their briefings. It’s akin to putting the editors of Jane’s in charge of an armored division because they took some great pictures of tanks.
A Senate with the best interests of the nation at war in mind would challenge Panetta’s appointment on the basis of common sense, not on irrelevant speaking fees. But perhaps the irrelevance of the speaking fees will remind some Senators of the irrelevance of Panetta to the intelligence effort.