Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Panetta? Why not?

By Michael J.W. Stickings

Like Josh Marshall, Andrew Sullivan, and Creature -- three of my favourite bloggers -- I'm not sure what to make of Obama's surprise selection of Leon Panetta to be CIA director. His extensive White House (CoS to Clinton) and Congressional experience should serve him well in a position that is, like it or not, political, but I think the intelligence community is right to be concerned. The question is, after all, just how political is he, just how close to Obama? What is needed at the CIA is integrity and independence, not an extension of the West Wing. Still, like the three mentioned above, I take comfort in the fact that his selection has shaken and stirred the Republican-enabling (and torture-enabling) Democratic intelligence leadership on Capitol Hill, notably Senators Dianne "fratricide" Feinstein and Jay Rockefeller.


Feinstein and Rockefeller sense a real individual with real clout at the agency, whom they cannot control. There may have been a lack of foresight here in not phoning Feinstein ahead of time. But it is also indisputable that many leading intelligence Democrats were deeply complicit in the Bush torture program and his illegal wire-tapping. It was just as important for the president-elect to pick someone not beholden to them either.

Some are now citing Panetta's appointment as somehow "political" rather than substantive. But it's obvious that Obama has actually found someone both capable of running a bureaucracy as complex as the CIA, of a stature to be approved by the Congress and maintain good relations, and with the good sense to know how interrogation based on torture is never right and much less effective than legal methods.

It remains an inspired choice. And the critics help show why.

I'm not sure how "inspired" it is -- time will tell whether Panetta is the right man for the job or just another Tenet or Goss -- but, as Steve Benen notes in an excellent post on the reaction to the selection, it "has drawn a fair amount of praise from credible voices," including Rep. Rush Holt, former Rep. Tim Roemer, David Corn, and CQ's Jeff Stein.

Once more, as so often throughout the transition, I suppose I ought to give Obama the benefit of the doubt.

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