Leon Panetta: Intelligent? Certainly. Intelligence? The Jury's Still Out : It's All Politics Former California congressman and Clinton Chief of Staff Leon Panetta is reportedly the choice of Barack Obama for CIA director. But some worry about his lack of intelligence credentials.
NPR logo Leon Panetta: Intelligent? Certainly. Intelligence? The Jury's Still Out

Leon Panetta: Intelligent? Certainly. Intelligence? The Jury's Still Out

We keep saying over and over that Barack Obama ran as close to a flawless campaign as one can remember, and nothing changes that. But in attempting to fill his administration, the president-elect has run up against some bumps in the road.

One was seemingly resolved on Sunday, when New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, the commerce secretary-designate, withdrew from consideration in light of an ongoing federal investigation into an alleged "pay for play" operation in the awarding of a state contract to a company that contributed to Richardson's political action committees. Still, some are wondering how the Obama team could continue with the choice of Richardson, given that the existence of the probe was well-known.

The news that Leon Panetta will be the next director of the CIA is not, at least not now, thought of as a mistake. But it does raise questions.

Panetta is one of the best-liked people in Washington, one with many friends on both sides of the political aisle, as well as with journalists. He served in Congress for 16 years, following his 1976 defeat of GOP Rep. Burt Talcott, and rose to become chairman of the House Budget Committee. He resigned in 1993 to become President Clinton's budget director and then his chief of staff.

But he has no experience in intelligence matters and has never served on the intelligence committee while in Congress. No doubt he dealt with intelligence matters as Clinton's chief of staff, but his expertise was always thought to be in budgetary matters, his skills always seen as political or managerial.

And that concerns some leading Democrats who will be dealing with intelligence matters in the 111th Congress. Incoming Chair Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) complained she was not consulted in advance of the pick and, according to the Los Angeles Times, indicated she might oppose it. "I was not informed about the selection of Leon Panetta to be the CIA director," Feinstein said. "My position has consistently been that I believe the agency is best served by having an intelligence professional in charge at this time." Feinstein is not known for grandstanding, nor is she known to have any personal problem with Panetta. It seems to be about qualifications.

A senior aide to Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), the outgoing chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, is also quoted by the Times as saying Rockefeller "would have concerns" about a Panetta nomination: "He's puzzled by the selection. He has concerns because he has always believed that the director of CIA needs to be someone with significant operational intelligence experience and someone outside the political realm."

Sen. Kit Bond of Missouri, the ranking Republican on Intelligence, also expressed skepticism over the Panetta pick.

Others were more supportive. Former Rep. Tim Roemer (D-IN), who served on the 9/11 Commission in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks, called it a "savvy" choice. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid described Panetta as "one of the finest public servants I have ever served with and dealt with."

Panetta, who has been a strong critic of CIA interrogation and detention methods, might receive a difficult welcome from old hands at the agency. But first he needs to win approval by the Senate.

For the record, Panetta's nomination is yet to officially be made. If confirmed, he would succeed Gen. Michael Hayden. At 70, he would become the oldest CIA director.

Other pols. Two other former members of Congress headed up the CIA. They were:

Porter Goss (R-FL), named by President George W. Bush in 2004; and

George H.W. Bush (R-TX), named by President Gerald Ford in 1976.

Postscript: Yesterday we speculated on some potential choices for commerce secretary in the wake of Richardson's withdrawal. NPR's Madeleine Brand interviewed Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, one of those on our list, who said she told Obama she was not interested in any administration position.