Leon Panetta was named to head the CIA today.

Its a surprise move, as no one had Panetta on any lists for a major appointment, and many were looking for someone with “intelligence experience” to head the CIA. While Panetta has never worked in the IC, he was a Congressman, head of OMB, and Chief of Staff to the president. The top thing Panetta seemingly had going for him? His strong stance against torture and the distance he provides from Bush Administration policies. Its now well documented that he wrote in the Washington Monthly that “We cannot and we must not use torture under any circumstances. We are better than that.”

Reaction has ranged from great to terrible to huh? As I mentioned before, Obama is putting together a governing team heavy on legislative experience. I think Panetta has the potential to be a good DCI. He knows Washington. He knows the White House, and he knows how to serve the President, who is the CIA’s main client. Lets not underestimate this kind of experience–most are looking for supply-side, Intel product production experience. Panetta has consumer, client-based experience. He knows what needs to come out of the agency, and can press the agency to produce a higher quality product that is at is useful to for the President. He also knows the budget and the Hill, so he can get the agency the money it needs and build a positive relationship with Congress.

If he stands up for his people, rewards good work, and puts together a good management team, he can do well. Recall that one former DCI, George Bush, had no intel experience when he took over, and he seems to have done quite well for himself, as they named the building after him.

Of course, this remains potential. He doesn’t know the business, he could misjudge what the agency needs to do, and he could just as easily alienate his workforce and decimate their budget, and the Administration might not listen to him anyway.

I think, though, that Panetta is a savvy enough guy to make this gig work and to be a very solid addition to the Administration and an asset to the IC.

Update: After pondering this for a bit, this appointment gets back to the experience issue that has been a leit-motif of the entire Obama campaign. He has no experience. He doesn’t need experience, he has good judgment. Yadda yadda yadda. Here you have a number of people, including the relevant congressional committee chairs requesting someone with “experience.” The Obama people obviously felt that “experience” as they constitute it was a detriment, not an asset. The “experienced” people rumored to have been under consideration, like Brennan or Hayden, certainly knew the CIA, but gained their experience working there under the Bush Administration. Is this the kind of experience you want leading the agency? Obama clearly feels not– he wants to signal a break from torture, Iraq’s WMD, and a host of other high profile failings of the agency and IC. So, you look toward a different kind of experience, experience running a government agency and serving the President’s needs not tainted by the Bush Administration. That pretty much leaves one place to go, a Clinton Administration veteran such as Panetta.

Now, there’s the persistent criticism that this is a return to the Clinton years, but one cannot have it both ways. If you want experience, Democrats really have no place else to go but Clinton officials. If you want a break from the Clinton era, you end up with no experience in key positions.

Indeed, lets take a look at the cabinet nominations. Who among them has experience in the agency they are now slated to lead?
Gates at Defense, as a holdover certainly has experience since he’s already in the job.
Energy, Chu, he directs Lawerence Berkeley Lab, which is a DOE lab.
Justice, Holder, was Deputy AG in the Clinton Administration
Treasury, Geithner, was Undersecretary of Treasury for International Affairs in the Clinton Administration
EPA, Jackson, worked there for 16 years early in her career.
USUN, Rice, was an Assistant Secretary of State for Africa in the Clinton Administration
HUD, Donovan, former Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Clinton Administration
Emanuel, COS, was a deputy COS in the Clinton Administration.

A second list, on which I would include Panetta, shows related and relevant experience, but not direct experience.
Education, Duncan, ran Chicago Schools
Shinseki, VA, Army
Blair, DNI, did a stint at the CIA and ran PACOM
Jones, NSA, EUCOM
Panetta, former COS
Orszag, OMB, from CBO

And then there’s the Legislative / Governor experience that everyone assumes should translate to a Cabinet appointment, and sometimes does and sometimes doesn’t.
Agriculture, Vilsack
HHS, Daschle
Homeland Security, Napolitano
Interior, Salazar
State, Clinton
Labor, Solis
Transportation, LaHood

Moral of the story–Panetta’s not any better or worse than any other of Obama’s picks.

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