Obama picks Panetta for CIA

January 5, 2009 6:37:37 PM PST
He was once one of the most powerful figures in Washington -- and soon could be again. A former Bay Area congressman is picked to become the nation's top spy. But is he qualified for the job?

Leon Panetta knows politics, knows government, as well as anyone-- no question. But does he have what it takes to be head of the Central Intelligence Agency, the CIA?

Critics have their doubts.

Leon Panetta has an impressive resume. He is an eight-term Congressman from Monterey, Director of the Office of Management and Budget, Clinton's Chief of Staff and a member of the Iraq Study Group. But he has no ties to the CIA and in the job of CIA director -- that's relatively rare.

Leon Panetta is the consummate political insider in Washington. But he is an outsider to the agency he's been tabbed to lead.

ABC 7 Political Analyst in Washington D.C. says the appointment has surprised many on Capitol Hill.

"One, his name hadn't been mentioned before as a potential candidate for the CIA indeed I hadn't heard his name mentioned for any cabinet positions, and secondly because he's not somebody identified with the military or the intelligence world," said ABC7 Political Analyst Prof. Bruce Cain, Ph.D.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, who is in line to take over the senate intelligence committee, was certainly taken by surprise, and she's not happy.

In a statement, she said: "I know nothing about this, other than what I've read. My position has consistently been that I believe the agency is best-served by having an intelligence professional in charge at this time."

On Monday, Obama Economic Policy Advisor Robert Reich had this reaction to Feinstein's statement.

"Look, I don't think the intelligence community has done a particularly spectacular job over the last eight years. I think it needs somebody, perhaps, from outside to take a fresh look at what it is doing and how it is doing it," said Reich.

During the campaign, Barack Obama was critical of the way the CIA handled the interrogation of suspected terrorists.

"I have said repeatedly that America doesn't torture and I'm going to make sure that we don't torture," said President-Elect Barack Obama.

And even though Panetta is an outsider to the agency, he does bring skills the CIA could use says Professor Cain.

"It's a demoralized agency, it's an agency that's had a lot of problems with recruitment. They clearly need to rebuild so getting somebody in there that has real managerial skills I'm sure was a top priority for Obama," said Cain Ph.D.

And Leon Panetta is a pragmatist -- a do-what-you-can-do politician. Two years ago ABC7 News asked him what advice he might give incoming speaker of the house Nancy Pelosi. His answer gives an insight into what he values.

"Most importantly, you have to be a pragmatist, you got to kind of understand what you have to do, considering the different views the different feelings of the people that are part of the party. And if you're able to do that and people know you're sincere about that, then you'll get ahead," said Leon Panetta on December 12, 2006.

If confirmed as Director of the CIA, Panetta will be working under the Director of National Intelligence. Barack Obama has nominated retired Navy admiral Dennis Blair for that job.

So you've got a military man balanced with a civilian. And in prevailing opinion Congress will back one of its own and Panetta will be confirmed.