The Obama transition process, which has been hailed by many in the media as the smoothest, most considered and thoughtful ever — and to some extent actually had been pretty smooth — has stumbled badly in the last couple of days. Perhaps it's a matter of haste as Inauguration Day approaches, but the wounds are self-inflicted.
The announcement that Leon Panetta, former Democratic congressman and White House chief of staff during the Clinton years, is Obama's choice to head the CIA has caused significant consternation, notably from California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who heads the Senate Intelligence Committee and apparently wasn't even informed of the choice in advance, and West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller, outgoing Senate Intelligence Committee chairman.
Panetta's intelligence resume is a pretty thin broth.
It is not only a lapse of courtesy not to inform Sen. Feinstein, but a fundamental lapse of elementary political common sense to keep in the dark a person so closely linked to intelligence issues — and it just might torpedo the Panetta nomination. Then again, if Team Obama had told Sen. Feinstein that Panetta was the choice, the response might have been “Are you out of your mind?” (or something more pungent) and perhaps the Obama people suspected this.
To be sure, as White House chief of staff, Leon Panetta kept a notably unruly Clinton White House more or less on track — evidence that he is a competent manager. He is not associated with the controversial use of “enhanced interrogation” techniques, or torture, the CIA was authorized to use during the Bush years, and has explicitly criticized the use of torture. He is an outsider slated to lead an agency that could use reform, and he will probably have the ear of the president. And as White House chief of staff he sat in on intelligence briefings.
On the other hand, as Amy Zegart, who teaches at UCLA and wrote the recent book, “Spying Blind: The CIA, the FBI, and the Origins of 9/11,” said, this is a “very strange choice.” During 16 years in the House Leon Panetta never served on an intelligence or foreign affairs committee and has expressed little or no burning interest in intelligence issues. To reform a secrecy-obsessed agency like the CIA one needs to know some deep secrets, to have insider information about certain ugly truths, failings and weaknesses. Otherwise one will have little idea even about what questions to ask or where to begin, other than fiddling with organizational charts.
Separately, the flap over New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who withdrew from consideration as Commerce Secretary, suggests that the much admired Obama vetting process was notably weaker early on than advertised. The choice of Leon Panetta to head the CIA suggests undue haste and perhaps even panic. It also suggests that president-elect Obama has little interest in or knowledge about intelligence and no desire to compensate for his own lack of knowledge by seeking a knowledgeable spy chief. It's a dangerous enough world that this could be genuinely tragic.
It looks to Amy Zegart as if Obama sought “to satisfy certain political constituencies at the risk of alienating intelligence professionals.” Where there may be some latitude for error in the choice of Commerce Secretary, we would say those margins are much narrower for CIA chief.
Of course every incoming president has made mistakes during what is probably an unduly lengthy transition process, and Obama still looks to be operating above the norm in this regard. But this one looks like a mistake. We hope Panetta proves us wrong.