In one of the more, forgive me, torturous staffing processes, it looks like Barack Obama has finally settled on the last major appointment he had left to make, that of CIA director. Given that the Bush administration has done so much long-term, institutional damage to our intelligence superstructure, basic tenets of human rights and the rule of law, and the really nearly impossible to overstate damage done to the very idea of America itself, and almost all of that has fallen under the scope of the CIA at one point or another, bloggers like Glenn Greenwald, Andrew Sullivan, and other leading voices in the fight for not buying into the false choice of security over freedom, have been keeping a very close, very wary eye on what Obama was going to do here.
Remember that Obama’s first floated choice for CIA Director, John Brennan, had to withdraw his name from consideration due to a mostly blogosphere-induced backlash against his previous advocacy of Bush positions on wiretapping, torture, and the like. While it remains unclear how complicit Brennan actually was in any of that (probably not very, in truth), those of us hoping for a clear indication of new direction were happy to see him go.
But that left Obama in a difficult bind. For CIA director, you kind of need somebody who has been working at a high level in the intelligence community. But, given that that would have been under Bush’s tenure, that also would be someone who almost certainly, on some level, had a hand in the aforementioned abuses.
Obama appears to have squared this circle by bypassing it entirely, nominating instead a man with not one iota of intelligence experience–former Clinton White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta.
NBC News has confirmed that President-elect Barack Obama has chosen former Clinton White House chief of staff Leon Panetta to run the CIA.
Panetta was a surprise pick for the post, with no experience in the intelligence world. An Obama transition official and another Democrat disclosed his nomination on a condition of anonymity since it was not yet public.
Panetta was director of the Office of Management and Budget and a longtime congressman from California.
If you have to make a quick trip to wikipedia, I don’t blame you.
However, despite the fact that he has no intelligence background, I find myself a bit optimistic about his appointment.
For one, it indicates that Obama is very serious about changing direction–he was responsive to the Brennan criticism, and in response he has gone out of his way to choose an outsider. A way, way outsider. As Andrew Sullivan notes, Panetta is clearly “significantly, detached from the torture regime and its apparatus in a way that anyone involved in the CIA in the last eight years would not be.” And as Glenn Greenwald adds, “it does seem clear that the Obama team was serious about avoiding anyone who had any connection at all to the Bush torture, surveillance and detention programs.”
For another, Panetta does have some thoughts on the germane issues of the post. Atrios uncovers a March op-ed by Panetta (and here’s a related one in the Washington Monthly) in which he more or less unequivocally condemns torture, wiretapping, and in general using fear as a justification for legality. It’s a thin record, to be sure, but at least it’s in the right direction.
And finally, what I think is thus far being missed, is the decision to choose not a spook, but a manager for the post. Panetta’s history is that of a human resources guy, a liason problem-solver. To that end, the smartest early take I’ve read yet on his appointment comes from Marc Ambinder. Panetta is there to clean house and, like much of what Obama does, to provide competent, pragmatic, and not-particular-ideologically driven leadership. In other words, like Obama himself, the hope seems to be that Panetta is being appointed to be the adult in the room at Langley, with the considerable added benefit of not having any particular baggage or loyalties himself.
Since nobody knows much about Panetta (at least not of the bloggers I read) and this is an entirely new role for him, it remains to be seen if he’ll prove effective or not; we can really only make generalized guesses. But as somebody who’s been watching this one decision closely, I’m cautiously optimistic.