The initial wire-service reports this afternoon of President-elect Obama’s appointment of Leon Panetta to become director of the CIA made mention of his work in the Clinton Administration’s first term as director of the Office of Management and Budget and as White House Chief of Staff from 1994 to 1997.
But it was not until several hours later that the AP filed a follow-up report (as did NPR and the New York Times) which referred to Panetta’s first experience in the Federal government’s executive branch back in 1969 and 1970. In those years, he served in the Nixon Administration as executive assistant to HEW Secretary Robert H. Finch, then as director of the HEW’s Office of Civil Rights until disagreements with Attorney General John Mitchell over the pace of implementing desegregation guidelines led Panetta to resign. He then wrote a book, Bring Us Together, criticizing White House policies in this area, before he changed his party registration to Democrat and began a career that took him to the House of Representatives for 18 years before he moved on to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
It was perhaps inevitable that the President-elect would decide on Panetta when it came time to follow the lead of most of his predecessors in the last 30 years in selecting a veteran of the Nixon White House for a major post in his administration. It’s rather less inevitable that Panetta would be put in charge of the CIA. As has already been pointed out, he handled a lot of intelligence-related material as Clinton’s Chief of Staff and as a member of the Iraq Study Group, but there’s a world of difference between such work and long-term hands-on experience with the nuts and bolts of Langley.
However, Panetta’s brief seems to be not so much to provide old-boy expertise of the William Casey variety as to undertake the sort of administrative overhaul of the agency that a decade’s worth of disgruntled intelligence vets have told us, in books and interviews, the CIA needs. But is he the right man for that job? We’ll see what the experts have to say.