In Defense of Leon
The critics grumbling that Leon Panetta isn’t qualified to head the CIA are missing the point: Only an outsider can save Langley.
Whenever Washington insiders really want to guard their turf, they start putting out the word that a prospective boss is not a pro—and that what’s really needed is a full-fledged pro. The latest example is the prospective nomination of Leon Panetta to be director of the CIA.
Here’s how the game is played. The worst fights arise over prospective bosses at the State Department, the Pentagon, and especially the CIA. They’re the high-profile departments, and their civil servants past and present have the best connections to the press based on long histories of providing juicy leaks. Whenever they sense a president might appoint someone who might actually try to change their engrained and self-congratulatory ways, out come the long knives of professionalism.
A professional is someone who is either a career official (something CIA people particularly like because they are especially devoted to their own craft) or someone who has a long track record of think tank work with occasional service in government. But the essence of being professional is not so much expertise per se, but demonstrating you can be “trusted,” which means you’re going to let the professionals pretty much continue to do what they want.
CIA veterans are the most determined protectors of their turf, and they want to be protected by one of their own. It’s just not going to happen this time.
Now, let’s get two things straight about Leon Panetta. First, he is about as close as you get to being a pro without having been one on the CIA and on intelligence matters generally. Second, if you look at the record of past CIA directors or secretaries of state and defense, you’ll find that non-pros do as well as pros.
Here’s what Panetta would bring to the table at the CIA. He was chairman of the House Budget Committee and director of the Office of Management and Budget under President Clinton. In both capacities, he oversaw the intelligence budget, and those who know where the money goes know the most important things about how government operates. He was also Clinton’s White House chief of staff for a couple of years, where he was privy to the president’s daily intelligence brief and to the full run of the most sensitive intelligence information. To boot, he served on the Baker-Hamilton study group on Iraq, where he had access to all the information about the most troublesome part of the world.
In sum, he has had substantial exposure to intelligence budgets, organization, and product. He knows what the CIA can do and can’t do, what it does well and what it does poorly. And if I know Leon Panetta—which I have for about 40 years, since we both worked for Republican senators in the 1960s—he let the purveyors of intelligence know when their product was less than satisfactory.
To me, the best possible director for the CIA is someone who has a background in how the place works, which Panetta does, and someone who knows where intelligence information has fallen short and what policy-makers really need.
So why are usually reasonable senators like Dianne Feinstein, the incoming chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Jay Rockefeller, the outgoing chairman, so incensed at Panetta’s presumed appointment? In the first place, they obviously weren’t consulted about the naming of Panetta, and committee chairs tend to take umbrage when they’re ignored (President-elect Obama simply made a mistake here in not doing so). In the second place, both of these senators have long advocated that the CIA be headed by a pro, meaning by one of its own pros. That’s been their main public proclamation on intelligence for years. And senators take their big proclamations—and even their smaller proclamations—quite seriously.
Before others join them, they would all do well to scrutinize the history of past appointments of pros and non-pros. I would say that the non-pro defense secretaries Clark Clifford and Mel Laird were every bit as good in their handling of the Pentagon and of the Vietnam War as the highly experienced and professional Bob Gates is in handling Iraq and his present duties. George Shultz and James Baker, who had no particular backgrounds in foreign affairs or the State Department, served just as ably as secretary of state as did Henry Kissinger. As for the CIA, outsiders like John McCone performed about as well as the ultimate professional, Richard Helms.
Historically, CIA veterans are the toughest and most determined protectors of their turf, and they always want to be protected by one of their own. It’s just not going to happen this time, because the Agency has gone along with too many questionable practices and policies of the George W. Bush White House. The next best thing for the CIA and the best thing for the country is to have Leon Panetta in the job. He is a nonpartisan Democrat, a proven manager, a wise man without being a congenital middle-of-the-roader, and someone who truly knows how to navigate between the political pressures that so dominate Washington without being overcome by them.
The CIA veterans may never give up their fight against Panetta, but at least the Congress and the press should not let themselves be hoodwinked into believing that Panetta isn’t as good as a pro, and for the purposes of doing what needs to be done at the CIA, better than a pro.
Leslie H. Gelb, a former Times columnist and senior government official, is author of the forthcoming HarperCollins book Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy, which shows how to think about and use power in the 21st century. He is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.