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January 7th, 2009
12:53 PM ET

Defending the Panetta Pick

Leon Panetta's nomination to lead the CIA is under scrutiny primarily because he lacks intelligence experience.
Leon Panetta's nomination to lead the CIA is under scrutiny primarily because he lacks intelligence experience.

John P.Avlon
AC360° Contributor

Leon Panetta is an unexpected pick to head the CIA, but he just might be the right man to restore Americans' confidence and internal morale in the organization. Panetta is known for his personal integrity as a California Congressman, fiscal responsibility as OMB director, and his management ability as Bill Clinton's best chief of staff. He views U.S. policy in a holistic manner, and he won't approach the CIA as a personal fiefdom – an approach which has dogged past presidents.

We are, of course, at war – and it might have been preferable to have an experienced intelligence hand at the helm, as Senator Diane Feinstein said in her terse statement after being blindsided by the nomination trial-balloon. But the experienced John Brennan – Obama's campaign intelligence advisor and considered the favorite for the job – was forced out of contention after netroot activists questioned whether he was insufficiently opposed to Bush-era policies like rendition. And the major mistakes which have bedeviled the CIA in the past – such as failing to anticipate the fall of the Soviet Union or the attacks of September 11th – have occurred with internal experts at the helm.

While the CIA Director occupies a mythic place in the minds of Americans due to decades of spy movies, the real intelligence director of the USA is now the Director of National Intelligence. The CIA director reports to him. And Obama's nomination for DNI, retired Admiral Dennis Blair, has won wide applause for his hands-on experience as a CIA liaison, leader of anti-terrorism efforts in Southeast Asia, and chief of the Navy's Pacific Command after 9/11.

There is a stubborn stereotype in American politics that Democrats' somehow take our national security less seriously than Republicans. After our country was politically polarized in a time of war by the Bush administration, the Obama administration has selected a serious and hawkish national security team which will be led by National Security Advisor Jim Jones (a retired Marine General) and Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair. Leon Panetta is someone well suited to helping integrate the culture of the CIA into the overall national security infrastructure – a key responsibility for the next director. He deserves an open-minded hearing on the hill, and his record of national service should grant him the benefit of the doubt. A fumble on Panetta's announcement is no reason his appointment could not prove to be a touchdown.

Editor's Note: John P. Avlon is author of “Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics.”

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Filed under: Barack Obama • John P. Avlon
soundoff (81 Responses)
  1. JoAnna Toth

    Leon Panetta is a excellent choice to head the "CIA" . He has morals, values, excellent character traits and leadership qualities, a high level of education and intelligence, and impressive business credentials. Anyone with an ounce of brains can see he is the perfect choice. Having years of experience in a position does "NOT" make one good at a job. There are many in this world who are horrible at their job, yet they have managed to hang onto it for many years by backstabbing and setting others up to fall who might take their place who are more qualified in everyway.

    Being good at any job and at leadership is more a matter of inborn character traits and moral upbringing, which creates those who are raised to be ethical, moral, rightous, honest, full of integrity, these traits are rare in people today. which is why most who are currently in trouble with the law or government for fraud...if you will note...have been in their positions with their companies for many years, quite experienced and seasoned employees, yet quite unethical. I admire this man and I admire President Obama and his choice. Leon Panetta is a "GOOD" person and that is the best qualification anyone could ask for in a employee, and exactly what this country needs, a good example of a true "Leader", especially in a position of public service.

    January 7, 2009 at 8:17 pm |
  2. Bert

    Panetta's it because no one else wants the job under an Obama administration that is going to weaken the US military and intel services.

    Change we can believe in? Man, that's a joke. Welcome to amateur hour at the US!

    January 7, 2009 at 8:01 pm |
  3. RoseSpook

    The appointment of Panetta to DCI will force the Agency to implode. You could argue that he will bring about fundamental change in their way of business or he will be ostracized by his own people. Either way the future of the Agency looks bleak.

    January 7, 2009 at 7:58 pm |
  4. Bill

    QUOTE "If Panetta was good enough for California and Bill Clinton the one of the Best Presidents America ever had – He’s good enough for me."

    Good married presidents don't go around getting blow jobs from young girls.

    January 7, 2009 at 7:55 pm |
  5. Dave

    So let me see if I get this straight. If you have solid intelligence experience, but you were somewhat supportive of Bush's policies then you get questioned by netroots activists and have to withdraw from consideration? However, if you have ZERO intelligence experience but carried water for one of the most morally reprehensible Presidents in the past 30 years, then you are good to go?

    And I hate to break it to you, but it wasn't the failure of the CIA in falling to predict the attacks of 9/11. It was the actions of people like Jamie Gorelick in establishing the wall between the FBI and the CIA that largely caused that to happen.

    It is purely ignorant to say that the DCI is a manager and doesn't require intel experience.

    Let's see what the next few years bring. Of course, I am sure it will still be blamed on the Bush Administration.

    January 7, 2009 at 7:50 pm |
  6. Jude

    What is the problem. He is credited with being a very good manager in the positions of responsibility he held under Clinton. The top man is not actually going to be a spy. He will be overseeing and managing from the executive level, setting policy and providing accountability.
    So he might be exactly what is needed to get the agency in better shape. The agency is loaded with operational experience and the day to day field operations will be implemented by the experienced directors and managers currenlty within the agency. Give this guy a chance and see how it unfolds.

    January 7, 2009 at 7:49 pm |
  7. Marquand Bobby

    So, I guess this means that as a U.S. citizen - I need to expect an eventual bailout of the CIA Director later on when the sh*! hits the fan because we got attacked under his watch. Oh wait, he lacks the experience to begin with so we all need to give him a break.

    January 7, 2009 at 7:46 pm |
  8. MM

    Restore Confidence? The professional intelligence officials that were put in place after 9/11 have kept this country safe when their counterparts in other countries, like Great Britain have not.

    Thank you to all those who serve, have served, and their leaders in the silent services, who have kept us safe these last 7 years.

    Not supporting Panetta is not a democrat or republican issue, it is a safey issue. He is a good man and public servant. He is not though the best person for the job.

    January 7, 2009 at 7:42 pm |
  9. Marie

    The American People have had it with the illegal torture & warmongering already. The People have spoken. I am very happy with the Panetta appointment. There must be a different "tone" in this Country, to gain respect in the rest of the world again. Yes, that is important, or why even have the word diplomacy in the English language? We are supposed to be Civilized. Enter the 21st Century....Finally!

    January 7, 2009 at 7:41 pm |
  10. Joey Marquez

    Barack Obama repeatedly stated that he is hell bent on making sure that he has the best qualified personnel to be part of his advisory groups, leadership teams, etc. From the looks of it thus far - cronyism, Clinton Part Deux is all that he'll be able to muster.

    I seriously hope he succeeds, even with all the Clintonites in his cabinet. But with a 'Clinton' as part of his cabinet - all he's really going to end up being is a placeholder for the ascendancy of the 'Clintons' in 2012. The 'hope' – whatever there was – is fading and fleeting; it is not as audacious as he advertised.

    January 7, 2009 at 7:40 pm |
  11. Jason

    The deputy director of the CIA is way more important than the director. The director is basically the Chairman of the Board. No hands on experience just deals directly with the President. The Deputy Director makes all of the real Tactical decisions, such as where to put spys and what missions will be carried out. The Director basically is the President's man to make the Strategic decisions.

    January 7, 2009 at 7:36 pm |
  12. Robert

    When the premise is the the CIA is broken and needs to be over hauled then choosing Mr, Panetta is arguable to some. In a time of war, and we are at war, whether some agree or not. Why do we take this risk of over hauling our inteligence agency?
    By what measure has the CIA failed us?
    Mr Obama takes a huge risk as he appoints another person with little experience to a position which is center to our fight against these terroist.
    If in fact we are attacked again, Mr Obama and Mr Panetta will have to explain why.

    January 7, 2009 at 7:33 pm |
  13. Dave in Illinois

    I can't wait to hear the excuses when the next 9/11 happens on Panetta's watch.

    "We had some of the key players in custody but they called their lawyers and refused to talk to us on 5th amendment grounds. Sorry about those US citizens who died in the attack but they can rest easy in peace knowing that the rights of the terrorists were respected."

    January 7, 2009 at 7:33 pm |
  14. cf

    Honestly, can anyone commenting here say, with confidence, that the CIA has served our country...ever?

    Indeed, the CIA is quite possibly a massive mistake, inspiring people around the world to hate the United States and have lasting suspicions about our national ethics.

    Some people commenting here express concern about Panetta's ability to head the CIA, worrying about the "peril" that a lack of "intelligence experience" might invite. But the assumption that the CIA has been protecting America should be questioned.

    In fact, the CIA might have privately pushed fake intelligence to friendly foreign agencies, and then very publicly cited that fake intelligence (seemingly coming *from* those foreign agencies) to support our president's case for starting the war in Iraq. In any case, the CIA allegedly HAD NO CLUE that Saddam had no WMDs. ZERO. So much for information gathering. However, I have a more cynical theory: the CIA was complicit in deceiving the American public...

    So, I would be all for dissolving the CIA. They have done worse than fail the American people; they have greatly increased the violence and terror in the world and against America. They trained Osama Bin Laden. I think in a very real way, the CIA set in motion the events that led to 9/11.

    January 7, 2009 at 7:33 pm |
  15. Mobius

    Just another political hack by an administration already overrun with political hacks. Welcome to The Socialist Police State of Omerica.

    Now, where are your papers?!?

    January 7, 2009 at 7:28 pm |
  16. Bob

    The problem with Mr. Panetta as I see it is that he may be inclined to see his new job as basically investigating and changing the CIA in an attempt to change Bush era policies and tactics and not as gathering critical intelligence to combat our emenies. If he believes that the CIA is the problem rather than a solution then we will be far less safe with him in charge.

    January 7, 2009 at 7:28 pm |
  17. Deena

    I'm happy with Obama's decisions, let's see how he does. dg

    January 7, 2009 at 7:26 pm |
  18. Shannon

    When I heard that Panetta was going to be head of the CIA I said to myself, "what??" and I was trying to figure out the reasons that Obama and Biden gave Feinstein as to why they thought Panetta would be good to head the CIA and why after hearing them that Feinstein agreed with them. I don't know if these are the reasons, but Anderson you laid it out pretty well and put it in perspective for me and made me see that maybe ... just maybe Panetta is a good choice after all.

    January 7, 2009 at 7:26 pm |
  19. JM Lonero

    I agree Mr Panetta is not qualified for the any position in the intelligence agencies. There MUST be other qualified candidates.

    What happened the CHANGE we were promised by Mr Obama?
    This reeks of Clintonesque.

    I am a lifelong Democrat who lives in Monterey County, California and have, in the past, voted for Mr. Panetta. For CONGRESS!

    January 7, 2009 at 7:25 pm |
  20. Brian

    I have no personal axe to grind with Panetta or Obama for that matter. Did not vote for Obama but he is my president and I am open to seeing what he will do.

    What I think is crazy is everyone who is monday morning quarterbacking the CIA. If all of you think being an analyst, case officer, or any other intel related position at the CIA is so easy, sign up and go do the job yourselves. I have known many of them in my life and they are the most dedicated, patriotic people you will ever meet doing the absolute best job they can. When you can start reading minds and intentions of terrorists get on with it and help keep us all safe. Otherwise, shut up and be thankful for the job they do each and everyday.

    January 7, 2009 at 7:24 pm |
  21. Dave in CO

    If anyone had a grasp of what the FBI has let slip to cover our security you wouldn't give the last 7 years so much credit.

    January 7, 2009 at 7:20 pm |
  22. Dan

    Panetta is a great pick to clean up this corrupt, rougue organization. The U.S. needs an outsider to make some REAL changes to the CIA.
    It's AMAZING that after all of Bush's unqualified political appointees to critical governmental organizations (remember Brownie at FEMA?), the Democrats are only now taking a firm stance against a nomination. WHY DIDN'T THEY STAND UP TO BUSH LIKE THIS? Cowards.

    January 7, 2009 at 7:18 pm |
  23. Dave in CO

    The CIA has become an ivory tower and severely needs a house cleaning. If we had a competent CIA we wouldn't have been attacked on 911 and we wouldn't have invaded Iraq with a bogus reason. People defend Rice and the CIA when it comes to 911 but protecting us from that kind of attack was supposed to be their JOB. The CIA is a rouge element and I think they should see some daylight. At least when they were Navy Intelligence they stayed out of US politics and with their mission. It may be time to eliminate the CIA and make them subject to oversight if they cannot clean up this mess.

    January 7, 2009 at 7:17 pm |
  24. Loraine

    Once again ready to serve your country; thank you Mr. Panetta.

    January 7, 2009 at 7:16 pm |
  25. Tom

    The CIA does NOT "need a makeover" from a so-called "outsider". American foreign policy decision makers need a makeover – more specifically PROSECUTING LEAKS & PUTTING COVERTNESS BACK INTO INTELLIGENCE. The CIA has, for decades, carried out missions, usually in the shadows, that have protected and promoted this nation's interests, both directly and indirectly. The public is NOT obliged to know what classified operations that agency undertakes in foreign countries – whether it's waterboarding, secret prisons, Guantanamo, or rendition. The sad reality is that the NOBAMA administration will only weaken this country's ability to protect itself, in exchange for social popularity here and abroad – sounds familiar – CLINTON!

    January 7, 2009 at 7:15 pm |
  26. Robin Martinez

    People!!! the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result!! How 'Intelligent' have they been??? This is the very 'CHANGE' we should all welcome!!

    January 7, 2009 at 7:15 pm |
  27. Teresa Chicago

    I'm cool with this choice. Lately I was read that we have 37,5 % people in our government that are Jews. Is this true???

    January 7, 2009 at 7:10 pm |
  28. Steven Pertusati

    Let's remember the CIA is "a dirty but supposedly necessary business" to protect our interests around the world. It is also a far more complicated matter than most Americans have knowledge of, and probably rightfully so.

    January 7, 2009 at 7:09 pm |
  29. bob in spokane

    Leon Panetta another re-tread from one of the most failed presidents in history.

    January 7, 2009 at 7:08 pm |
  30. Tom Hughes

    Lets go over the facts. The American people voted in Obama for president because we wany change. If you don't vote in new blood after the persident, you wasted your vote on him. If you don't change the officials running this country, There will be no change and politics as usual. Obama will be dead in the water without a boat.

    January 7, 2009 at 7:06 pm |
  31. DENNIS

    I think that the pick of Panetta is the best decision because; the CIA needs to have some house-cleaning following the past 8 years....

    January 7, 2009 at 7:02 pm |
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