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Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Low Bar for Leon Panetta

As soon as Panetta was chosen, there was nearly an immediate backlash from all sorts of corners of politics and media against the pick. In trying to defend the pick, the administration and some of its defenders have set an awfully low bar for Panetta, and it makes me wonder whether or not these folks have any concept of the role of intelligence. Here is how President Designate Obama defended the pick.

In his public comments, Mr. Obama defended Mr. Panetta's qualifications, calling him "one of the finest public servants that we've had" who "brings extraordinary management skills, great political savvy, [and] an impeccable record of integrity." As
chief of staff to President Clinton, Mr. Panetta was steeped in international affairs as well as crisis management and "had to evaluate intelligence consistently on a day-to-day basis," Mr. Obama added.

Now, I don't doubt that Panetta is a man of integrity and savvy. I don't doubt that his years in the White House did expose him to crisis management. I take issue with the idea that he "evaluated" intelligence consistently. The CIA itself evaluates intelligence. Panetta was likely privy to many meetings in which intelligence was discussed. To say he evaluated intelligence is a gross over exaggeration. So, by Obama's standards, anyone with a major role in any White House would then be perfectly capable of being CIA director. Of course, such a thought is ludicrous. The CIA, more than just about any government bureaucracy, is a unique bureaucracy that requires knowledge only gained by being involved for a long period of time in intelligence. To say that being at daily briefings in which intelligence was discussed is enough is again ludicrous.

Yet, this is nothing compared to the rationalization given by Diane Feinstein.

Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said she talked to Panetta, a longtime friend, for hours on Tuesday night and is decidedly behind the nomination now.

If Obama feels he will get unvarnished opinions from Panetta as he has stated then "that's good enough for me," she said.

If that's the standard, then David Axelrod is fit the be CIA chief. In fact, by both their standards, Axelrod is perfectly qualified to handle the job.

Now, let's take a look at what intelligence veteran Ralph Peters said were the main qualifications to be Director of the CIA.

To be a qualified D-CIA, a man or woman needs a sophisticated grasp of three things: The intel system, foreign-policy challenges and the Pentagon (which owns most of our intelligence personnel and hardware). Panetta has no background - none - in any of these areas.

Now, compare the specificity and sophistication of what Peters said with the vague defenses that Feinstein and Obama gave. Keep in mind that unlike Feinstein, Obama and Panetta, Peters has been in the trenches in intelligence most of his life. In fact, he is imminently more qualified to be the next Director of the CIA than is Panetta.

What these defenses and the low bars they set tell me is that Obama's administration hasn't the first clue about what role the CIA needs to play in the GWOT. The only thing Obama knows is that he will reverse Bush's policies. That would be fine if there were a clear plan going forward. Instead of giving us that, he has given us a politico and some vague defenses that set the bar awfully low for what qualifies for Director of the CIA.

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