What the Panetta appointment means

Barack Obama sent a message with the selection of Rahm Emanuel as his chief of staff, but apparently didn’t think enough people understood it.  He sent a stronger message yesterday with his choice of Leon Panetta for Director of CIA, and this time, it’s unmistakable.  Political considerations will trump competence and experience, even in the most critical roles Obama has to fill:

President-elect Barack Obama stunned the national intelligence community by selecting Clinton White House chief of staff Leon E. Panetta, a longtime Washington insider with little intelligence experience, to serve as the next head of the CIA.

The decision — which was also met with wariness on Capitol Hill — reflects a desire to change the intelligence power structure, officials close to the selection said yesterday. Obama has chosen retired Navy Adm. Dennis C. Blair as the director of national intelligence, a job he intends to reinforce as the “lead horse” on intelligence issues, an official close to the selection process said.

Panetta, 70, is widely regarded as a good manager who knows the government bureaucracy well. Panetta, a former eight-term member of Congress who has run a think tank in California for the past decade, has no significant ties to the agency that Obama has criticized for using harsh interrogation methods. Panetta has openly objected to the use of such methods, writing in an essay last year that the United States “must not use torture under any circumstances.” Obama had trouble filling the CIA slot in part because other candidates were perceived as tainted for having supported aspects of the Bush administration’s interrogation and intelligence programs.

Yet Panetta, who also served as director of President Bill Clinton’s Office of Management and Budget, has no institutional memory of the intelligence agency and no hands-on experience with its thorniest challenges, including the collection of human intelligence overseas. His lack of experience drew immediate questions, most notably from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the incoming chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, who said she was not briefed on his selection and learned about it from news accounts.

The US is currently fighting an asymmetrical war on two hot fronts, but more to the point, in every corner of the world.  We need our best people at the helm at Defense and in the intelligence arenas, people with insight into the problems and challenges facing America at war.  Barack Obama either doesn’t understand that or cares less about security than he does about politics.

Leon Panetta only has indirect experience with intelligence. As budget director in the Clinton administration, Panetta has familiarity with their funding, and Panetta also served on the Iraq Study Group for several months, which looked at the role that intelligence failures played in our invasion and during the occupation.  There must be thousands of people more qualified to run the CIA from an experience and competence standpoint, including several members of Congress, notably Jane Harman, who should have chaired the House Intelligence Committee in the last session of Congress but ran afoul of Nancy Pelosi.

Even the notion of “change” doesn’t apply here.  Obama has no executive experience in government, and neither does Panetta, but Panetta hardly represents a breath of fresh air in Washington.  He’s another Clinton-era retread, only in this case, put in charge of an organization about which he knows nothing.  He’s there to exercise Obama’s political will and nothing more.

Obama deserves the benefit of the doubt on his political appointments, but this is one selection that should get a lot of scrutiny from Congress.  If Obama wants a political hatchet man in a high-level appointment, have Panetta run OMB — or Commerce, where there’s a late opening.  America deserves the benefit of experience and wisdom in the position of CIA director.