Yesterday, President-elect Obama announced two key members for his national security team: former Clinton chief-of-staff Leon Panetta to be director at the CIA and Admiral Dennis Blair to be national intelligence director. The Panetta appointment drew some grumbles from incoming intelligence committee chair Diane Feinstein and exiting chair Jay Rockefeller—both quickly suggested they had no prior knowledge of the choice and expressed some reservations.
I think the choices are not merely good, but inspired, and I see the friction with Feinstein and Rockefeller as a plus rather than a minus. The selection of Admiral Blair, a tough retired Naval intelligence professional, quite appropriately puts the key coordinating position for the intelligence community in the hands of a non-political figure who commands uniform respect among its rank-and-file. On the other hand, Panetta has no experience in the intelligence community—he would be a fresh face. He has gathered broad respect for his managerial competence and for his ability as a legislator. He acquitted himself ably as chief-of-staff to Bill Clinton, even in rough sailing.
Should we be troubled by his lack of experience in the intel community? Milt Bearden, a retired agency professional whose cumulative reflections over the last eight years contain more pure wisdom than just about anybody I’ve tracked, says “no,” and he calls it a “brilliant” choice. “It is not problematic that Panetta lacks experience in intelligence,” Bearden told Laura Rozen at her new must-read Foreign Policy blog. “Intel experience is overrated. Good judgment, common sense, and an understanding of Washington is a far better mix to take to Langley than the presumption of experience in intelligence matters. Having a civilian in the intelligence community mix is, likewise, a useful balance.”
So why would the Obama team, which has been so careful and thoughtful in approaching the nominations process, have failed even to consult the two Democratic senators who have the most to say about intelligence? I don’t think this was accidental. I read something else into it. The bottom line is that Jay Rockefeller was an abject failure when it came to intelligence oversight. His term as ranking member and then chair of the Senate intelligence committee was one in which Congress generally, and the Senate in particular, failed to live up to their Constitutional mandate. The intelligence community was steered by the Bush Administration into a series of criminal escapades. Effective congressional oversight would have exposed these failings and brought them to heel. But the Rockefeller-Feinstein record was little short of disastrous. I’m delighted that the Obama team didn’t consult them.
And I suspect that Panetta was chosen principally for his managerial skills, but secondarily because Obama wanted someone who would have a more powerful voice in Washington generally, and in Congressional circles in particular, than either Rockefeller or Feinstein.
Panetta’s task will be to put the agency back on firm ground in terms of policy; he will not want to micro-manage. He needs to put an end to the abuse of the agency at the hands of political hacks and ensure that its operatives go about their jobs as professionals, calling the facts as they see them and not telling the White House what it wants to hear. For eight years, while Rockefeller and Feinstein stood by, the agency was pressured by the Cheney shogunate to validate its fairy tales. This did not serve the nation’s security interest. Sober analysis that does not fear political meddling needs to be restored.
And Panetta has one other key trait. When he tells the nation and the world that the torture and mistreatment of prisoners and the program of torture by proxy has ended, people will believe him.