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Barack Obama selects a 'Leon Panetta' to head the CIA

January 5, 2009 |  5:51 pm

California's ex-congressman, ex-White House chief of staff and ex-director of the Office of Management and Budget Leon Panetta with his ex-boss president Bill Clinton

Unless 'Leon Panetta' is code name for George Smiley or someone else with secret qualifications in the crucial, clandestine world of intelligence, president-elect Barack Obama has made his first or second inexplicable pick of advisors.

Coming up on his Jan. 20 inauguration after weeks of pondering, Obama's decided to appoint the ex-California congressman to run the Central Intelligence Agency.

The 61-year-old Panetta's main apparent qualification for Obama is his resume from the Clinton administration, as White House chief of staff and director of the Office of Management and Budget. And Panetta's been loyally helping the ex-Illinois senator with the transition to power. So they've got to put him somewhere.

(Speaking of Clintonites, Obama also names four more of them to the Justice Department.)

But immediately, someone as important as California's Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the incoming chair of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee, raised serious doubts publicly. "My position has consistently been," she said, "that I believe the Agency is best-served by having an intelligence professional in charge at this time."

Feinstein's statement also touched on perhaps the real reason her nose is bent to the left today.

"I was not informed about the selection of Leon Panetta to be the CIA director." A real rookie transition mistake on the Hill that one could think Obama's chief of staff, recently-resigned House member Rahm Emanuel, might have anticipated. Or even ex-House member Panetta himself, if he's supposed to be such a savvy D.C. manager. Few more details here.

An aide to the outgoing Democratic intelligence committee chair, codenamed "Jay Rockefeller," also questioned the pick of a non-professional to run the agency at this troubled time for the agency and tumultuous time in the world. Rockefeller too read about the selection first in the N.Y. Times, which can annoy even Democrat congressmen.

As Jennifer Rubin thoughtfully notes, Panetta's career is devoid of any intelligence experience, save serving on the Iraq Study Group, which got it wrong about the surge.

During the presidential campaign Obama had regular criticism of the U.S. intelligence community, including its at times rigorous interrogation methods. Which still doesn't explain Panetta but might suggest Obama doesn't trust intelligence insiders. Good luck with that kind of relationship in the bubble the next four years.

The secretive Agency has not been known as the most hospitable workplace for outsiders, although George H.W. Bush ran it successfully before moving over to the intelligence receiving end on Pennsylvania Avenue. The Agency even named its work campus for the 41st president, which should start each morning off just right for the arriving Panetta.

To view a video news report on the new intelligence appointments, click on the "Read more" line below.

--"Andrew Malcolm"

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Photo credit: Associated Press

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