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Rarely has a presidential nomination been so comprehensively panned as that of former Clinton chief of staff Leon Panetta, tipped by President-elect Barack Obama as the director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Ever since word of the choice leaked out just after the New Year, a phalanx of former intelligence officials and high-level "customers" has formed to denounce the decision to put forth someone with no hands on experience gathering or assessing intelligence in the CIA job.
The initial draft of history, unfortunately, needed significant revision. Soon after the choice was announced, NBC News' "First Read," overseen by the network's newly minted White House Correspondent Chuck Todd, wrote that Obama was "allowing ideology to trump competence for the first time in one of his major appointments." The rationale, widely accepted in early accounts in the early days, was that Obama had chosen so many Wall Street insiders and former centrists of the Clinton years for other key posts that he decided to assuage the baying left by foisting an intelligence newbie on the CIA.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who heads the Senate Intelligence Committee, put it "My position has consistently been that I believe the agency is best served by having an intelligence professional in charge at this time." (She has since rethought her opposition). Indeed, early opposition from some in the Democratic camp to word that Obama favored such a professional, John O. Brennan, who served as the CIA's chief of staff under former agency director George Tenant, caused Brennan to publicly remove his name from consideration. The knock on Brennan was his defense, in a series of interviews after leaving office, of "taking off the gloves" in interrogating terrorism suspects. When he withdrew his name, many critics of Bush administration policies toward such suspects claimed victory. Those who supported the "gloves off" approach concluded that politics was trumping competence.
As usual, the truth is more complicated. Those who follow the twists and turning saga known as "intelligence reform" saw another possibility: That Obama was intent on, at last, imposing the recommendations of the bipartisan 9/11 Commission on the nation's most famous intelligence agency.
Harken back to July 2004, when report was released, and you'll remember that among its many recommendations was the creation of the Director of National Intelligence, a position intended to fix the contraditory, overlapping juridictions which helped Mohammad Atta and his boys perpetrate history's most notorious terrorist attack. The creation of the position soon afterward was supposed to subordinate CIA, but in practice, this has not been fully realized under the Bush administration.
Now, fast forward back to 2009, and reconsider why Obama might have put at CIA Leon Panetta, a savvy, 70-year-old careerist known for his organizational skills who survived the Clinton White House with his reputation intact. Given looming congressional hearings of the policy decisions that led to harsher interrogation techniques, the outsider at the helm might have been regarded as ideal. Meanwhile, intelligence policy, as per the 9/11 Commission, would be made by the DNI, not by the CIA director. On Friday, Dennis Blair, a retired admiral who once headed the U.S. Pacific Fleet, was named to that post. Among those praising the choice: former Reagan Navy Secretary John Lehmann, who, btw, just happened to be among the most vociferious members of the 9/11 Commission. And, to drive home the perils of oversimplifying anything to do with the intelligence community, the president-elect also named Brennen as his top advisor on counterterrorism, a post which requires no confirmation hearings. Assuaging, anyone?