THE BLOG
01/06/2009 11:16 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

What's Wrong with Panetta?

I am no intelligence expert, but have followed the sad bureaucratic history of the CIA out of the corner of my eye for years, just because it's so...awful. The agency has repeatedly been the victim either of its own internal pathologies, which are substantial, or the politics of intelligence gathering, which are treacherous. It's not like, say, the Department of the Interior, where a new secretary can come in, put a new stamp on things, alter the agency's entire policy trajectory. And there have been very few successful CIA directors in recent decades. Would-be technocratic reformers like John Deutch failed. George Tenet, a smart political operator who was popular inside the CIA and out for a while, ended up making untenable political compromises on Iraq and torture that damaged the agency.

So I don't quite understand why Dianne Feinstein and Jay Rockefeller are objecting to Obama's pick, Leon Panetta:

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who this week begins her tenure as the first female head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said she was not consulted on the choice and indicated she might oppose it.

"I was not informed about the selection of Leon Panetta to be the CIA director," Feinstein said. "My position has consistently been that I believe the agency is best served by having an intelligence professional in charge at this time."

A senior aide to Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), the outgoing chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the senator "would have concerns" about a Panetta nomination.

Rockefeller "thinks very highly of Panetta," the aide said. "But he's puzzled by the selection. He has concerns because he has always believed that the director of CIA needs to be someone with significant operational intelligence experience and someone outside the political realm."

As objections go, these are weak. Of course expertise helps in any endeavor. But there is no reason that the CIA director has to be an intelligence expert. George H.W. Bush, considered one of the more successful directors, had no prior intelligence background. And the notion that the agency should somehow exist outside of politics is absurd. Obviously politics should not color intelligence findings, as they did on Iraq. But the CIA is a government agency with a large budget, a damaged reputation, and sharks of various kinds constantly circling it, looking to impose their own agendas (including, one has to assume, Feinstein and Rockefeller). It will benefit from having an outsider with his own power base and experience at the uppermost levels of government - assuming he has a clear idea of the agency's role going forward and how it should serve the president. Whether Panetta can master the CIA's internal politics is, of course, the biggest open question. But he probably has a better shot than an intel professional, who is more likely to be "captured" by various internal factions.

Panetta is unlikely to be a Porter Goss, the GOP congressman brought in by the current Bush administration to bring a less-than-cooperative CIA to heel - a project that thankfully failed. Goss, of course, was a former CIA agent.

johnmcquaid.com/blog