Out in the cold

Our view: The choice of Leon E. Panetta to head the CIA could be a major misstep for the Obama White House - can this outsider penetrate the agency's insular world?

January 07, 2009

Leon E. Panetta has shown himself to be an astute, accomplished and politically adept public servant. But all his management skills and political acumen can't make up for what he lacks as President-elect Barack Obama's nominee to lead the Central Intelligence Agency - real experience in the spy business. The much-maligned agency gets more right than it gets credit for and could use an outsider to assess its problems and challenges in the post-9/11 world. But without a mastery of the basic techniques of intelligence-gathering and an understanding of the conflicts within the bureaucracy, Mr. Panetta would be hard-pressed to inspire its professionals and re-invigorate their pursuit of its mission.

The former White House chief of staff during the Clinton administration was a loyal and efficient manager, attributes surely attractive to Mr. Obama. Mr. Panetta's years as a California congressman and House of Representatives leader must have appealed to the president-elect, and the CIA needs an advocate who has both the ear of the president and the confidence of congressional leaders.

But as Mr. Obama and Mr. Panetta are certain to find out soon, the mysteries of the CIA extend far beyond the secrets of our enemies, and understanding how the CIA works is more important to improving the quality of U.S. intelligence and assessing the nation's threats. The previous two CIA directors were seasoned Washington insiders, and too often during the Bush administration, the agency gave the president what he wanted and ignored what he needed to know. That was the case in the run-up to the Iraq war, a situation that was compounded by the unconscionable endorsements of torture and secret prisons to gain intelligence.

Mr. Panetta has spoken forcefully against such practices, as any new CIA director must. But it's hard to say confidently that he can master all that he will need to know about the agency quickly enough to lead it effectively. Mr. Panetta's challenge is not his alone.

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