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Leon Panetta: The Intelligent Choice

The principled centrist who represented Monterey Bay in Washington for 16 years may be just the guy to fix the CIA.

By Eric Johnson

What's happened in Washington over the last 12, 15 years is that winning has become much more important than governing. And operating on the basis of what you can get today has become more important than focusing on tomorrow.

The consequence has been this kind of hardened trench warfare in which both parties have been locked into trenches throwing grenades at one another. It's created an inability in either party to be able to come out and to find a kind of consensus and compromise that's important to solving problems. --Leon Panetta

Leon Panetta spoke these words in November of 2006, about a year before Barack Obama began the marathon campaign that won him the White House--a campaign in which Obama called for the same kind of bipartisanship that Republican-turned-Democrat Panetta had been championing for decades.

I was interviewing Leon about his role in the Iraq Study Group, a commission appointed by Congress and chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker, a Republican, and former U.S. Rep. Lee Hamilton, a Democrat.

Again, speaking of the crises facing the nation two years ago, Panetta fed me a quote that he might as well have given today in response to his nomination to the post of CIA director:

It's an interesting commentary on the politics of our time that Congress has to reach outside of the political institutions to look for answers. That is as much of a crisis as Iraq is. In part I think it's a commentary on the dysfunctionality of the government in Washington. And in part it's probably a kind of cry for help, that you need to go outside of government, to a group of people who've been involved in some capacity, to be able to see if there's a bipartisan approach that can help resolve the issue.
I don't know that there is.

Obama's selection of Panetta to head up the CIA has given a fright to the commentariat back in D.C., but for those of us around these parts who've had the opportunity to know him, it's not such a big shock. We know that Panetta, like Obama, is hostile to the intense partisanship that has gridlocked politics. And we know that Panetta is also a world-class boat-rocker--the kind of man you want on the job if your goal is to shake things up.

In Congress, where he represented the Central Coast for 16 years, Panetta crossed the aisle to successfully champion civil rights and environmental protection, but he made his mark as a budget hawk who believed in fiscal discipline and balanced budgets--a rare bird among Democrats at the time. That pissed off a lot of his pork-loving party-mates, but it led to a gig as chairman of the Office of Management and Budget under President Bill Clinton, a fellow radical centrist.

Clinton liked Panetta enough to give him the top job in the White House as chief of staff, where Panetta exerted iron-fisted leadership for almost four years. (He left a few weeks before the Lewinsky scandal erupted, and since that time has maintained a friendship with Bill Clinton--although he was critical of Hillary during the primary campaign.)

It's no shock that Panetta's nomination is not being met with big cheers from inside the Agency--they undoubtedly suspect that Panetta comes in with a mandate to fix a system he and the new president see as broken.

Nor is it surprising that some congressional Democrats sound lukewarm on Panetta's appointment. Dianne Feinstein, who just took her seat as the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, responded stiffly to the news on Monday. That fact is probably somewhat consoling to the folks at Langley.

Fact is, like all of Obama's cabinet selections, Panetta is a known quantity in Washington. As Greg Miller of the Los Angeles Times pointed out in a Tuesday blog post, this appointment shows that the president-elect believes that "a spy chief who understands politics may be better equipped to carry out the incoming administration's national security agenda than one who understands espionage."

That national security agenda can be summed up in one word: Change. In selecting Panetta, Obama makes it clear that even in the area of international intelligence, which the pundits feel is his weak point, he is going to call the shots. And as the world watches our old friend Leon dismantle the CIA's network of secret prisons, put an end to the practice of "rendition" that sent detainees offshore to be tortured and set the nation's intelligence structure back on course, we can be proud, but we won't be all that surprised.

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