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January 6th, 2009
11:39 AM ET

A rookie mistake

Leon Panetta, who has a strong background in economics, was chief of staff for President Bill Clinton.
Leon Panetta, who has a strong background in economics, was chief of staff for President Bill Clinton.

Leslie Sanchez
AC360° Contributor

The near-flawless Obama transition hiccupped Monday with the surprise announcement that former Clinton White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta was the new president's choice to head the Central Intelligence Agency. The well-respected Panetta - Democrats and Republicans alike have praised his work and know him to be a strong executive with a first-class understanding of budgets and politics - is not someone who is considered to have experience in the netherworld of intelligence operations.

In this sense he mirrors former President Jimmy Carter's initial choice of Kennedy speechwriter Ted Sorenson to lead the CIA. Sorenson, whose vantage point inside JFK's inner circle gave him a more than passing acquaintance with at least a few of the CIA's more interesting Kennedy-era adventures, saw his nomination go nowhere when people realized he was just not qualified for the job, which at that time also included the responsibility of leading the U.S. intelligence community. But Panetta's qualifications - or lack thereof - isn't the real story here.

The Obamacracy's initial reaction was less than approving. Daily Kos, a Web site hub of pro-Obama activity and opinion, decried the choice as "weak." But what's truly interesting is the vehemence of California Sen. Dianne Feinstein's strongly-worded criticism of the nomination.

"I was not informed about the selection of Leon Panetta to be the CIA director," she said in a statement. "My position has consistently been that I believe the agency is best served by having an intelligence professional in charge at this time." As the incoming chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has the responsibility for presiding over Panetta's confirmation hearing and is indicating she might oppose the nomination.

Clearly, she is not happy. To figure out why she's upset, you need go any further than the first line of her statement, which again brings to mind the rocky relations between the incoming Carter Administration and the Democrats on Capitol Hill. You just can't make an announcement of this magnitude without letting the relevant committee chairman know in advance and without giving them the opportunity to offer their opinion. It's a rookie mistake that, hopefully for Obama's mistake, won't happen again.

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Filed under: Barack Obama • Leslie Sanchez
soundoff (8 Responses)
  1. TK

    He picked a person of integrity that appears to have all the experience as a user of such info from the CIA. The 20+ years of Bush and the CIA need to be closed. It may be time to let the FBI run things instead of the CIA. The missing Billions of dollars in Iraq, Florida and Louisiana Disasters, and Afghanistan, as well as the trillions in our financial institutions needs to be looked at very seriously. The allegations of drug dealing since the 80's also needs to be scrutinized!

    January 6, 2009 at 2:47 pm |
  2. Kevin - Elk Grove, California

    I respect Leon Panetta. That doesn't mean I think he'll be good for the job, I just don't know. Probably nobody really knows. But, there are pros and cons to everything. A couple of the cons are, his apparent lack of intelligence experience and maybe the lack of respect he'll get, if appointed, from inside the CIA because he is an outsider. A big pro is, that he is an outsider and can maybe bring fresh ideas and not continue to go along with the status quo.

    I'd say move forward with the confirmation process and see how he responds to the questioning.

    January 6, 2009 at 2:35 pm |
  3. Arachnae

    When Bush-the-first was DCI, his most relevant previous experience was envoy to China. He was, by all accounts, a pretty effective DCI.

    Until Bob Gates was selected by Bush-I, the DCI always came from outside the agency. Since then, the previously independent analysis provided by the agency has become a rubberstamp for what the administration in power wants to hear. Intel-insiders are not a guarantee of good intelligence – if history is anything to go on, they're a recipe for politicized and biased reporting.

    Bring on the outsider.

    January 6, 2009 at 1:07 pm |
  4. Bev C.

    Senator Feinstein is correct. How can Panetta be selected when he has absolutely no experience?

    January 6, 2009 at 12:39 pm |
  5. Rekha, AC

    I think President Obama has made a great selection as a "rookie". I think the Republicans, including journalists who support Republicans have a lot to hiccup about, and so does Dianne Finstien. Old fashioned ice-cream is definitely better than the hot slushy ice-cream of the present times.

    Rekha

    January 6, 2009 at 12:36 pm |
  6. Larry

    What was the reaction from Panetta? Will there be a price to pay by the transition team?

    January 6, 2009 at 12:21 pm |
  7. Clark

    I thought that the Clinton Administration (and Mr. Panetta was part of that) had a significant role in weakening the CIA ... which had a direct impact on America's less than efficient methods of gathering accurate intelligence around the world ... which includes information on Iraq's WMD capabilities.

    Why then would Obama want to put Mr. Panetta in charge of the CIA? Has Mr. Panetta changed his views about the CIA? If he was and is a true supporter of the CIA was he just not effective in making his position clear to the Clinton Administration? or is Mr. Obama willing and hopeful of weakening the CIA yet again?

    January 6, 2009 at 11:57 am |
  8. Cindy

    I have to agree with Feinstein on this one. We need someone who can hit the ground running and knows all that there is to know about the CIA and intelligence operations. Placing someone in there who has no clue at this time when so much is going on in the world is ridiculous.

    Cindy...Ga.

    January 6, 2009 at 11:47 am |