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Muddling Through at the CIA

Leon Panetta likely will get through his confirmation hearing despite his lack of direct intelligence experience and concerns about his participation in the Clinton-era  rendition of terror suspects. But not everyone is convinced this is a good idea:

“I do have reservations about Panetta as a CIA director. He’s a good man with accomplished government service and with some national security knowledge,” said Michael O’Hanlon, the ubiquitous foreign policy and military defense analyst in the Brookings Institution who often advises the Democrats on foreign policy issues. “However, he has never had a major job in national security and therefore this seems to be Obama’s weakest appointment in that sphere.”

The former nine-term congressman often voted against President Reagan on major military issues in the 1980s and was a critic of President Bush’s decision to go into Iraq. As a member of the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan panel of distinguished advisers who put together a broad list of recommendations on the war, he supported an early military pullout.

“The Iraq Study Group to my mind did not do a great job in its central recommendation — that U.S. combat forces leave Iraq by early 2008 — and as such I would not emphasize Panetta’s experience in that area as a major accomplishment,” Mr. O’Hanlon said.

“People can surprise you, but I would begin with a lot of skepticism about this choice.”

The “best and the brightest” moniker which was trotted out to justify the Tim Geithner selection for Treasury seemed to rest on the notion that in dire times we need superbly qualified people in key positions. Yet that rule is easily dispensed with in the case of Panetta, whose prime qualifications are budget acumen and personal loyalty to the President. No such concern for technical expertise is evidenced when it comes to a key intelligence agency.

It does seem puzzling that an agency which suffered during the Bush years from an excess of “politization” and incompetence does not warrant someone who is substantively well versed in its day-to-day operations. That may evidence either an intention to diminish the CIA’s role (i.e. the CIA doesn’t need someone expert because other intelligence entities will be running the show) or a naïveté about the ability of Panetta to manage an agency without the benefit of expertise. Let’s hope it is not a lack of appreciation for our national security challenges.

It is worth noting that the Senators who blithely vote to confirm Panetta — and whomever else the popular new President sends up — are setting  the bar for future presidents and their nominees. From Geithner we learned that lack of candor and chiseling the Treasury aren’t disqualifiers for a top economic post. From Eric Holder we learned that poor judgment and fibbing to Congress are no barriers to becoming Attorney General. And from Panetta we are learning that “expertise” is in the eye of the beholder and entirely optional for key national security slots.


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