CIA: Parsing The Panetta Pick

President-elect Barack Obama's message about the economic crisis on his first full day in Washington as president-elect was muddied by a controversy over his pick of Leon Panetta to be director of the CIA.

Let's parse Barack Obama's pick of Leon Panetta to be director of the Central Intelligence Agency. It's stirring up some controversy, even among Democrats. Which is probably a good sign about this very capable, amiable, non-arrogant fixture of decades on the California political scene. And while we're at it, let's give some depth to his background beyond the usual shorthand "former Clinton chief of staff," which doesn't really explain him at all, as he comes out of the almost forgotten liberal Republican tradition.

Panetta's fellow Californian Dianne Feinstein, the incoming chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, is miffed that word of the appointment got out before she was notified, saying that she's always thought the post should go to an intelligence professional. It also turns out that she may have had her own candidate, a career CIA insider, a sign that Feinstein's grasp of the political atmospherics today is, let's say, not strong.

Barack Obama's picks for secretary of state, secretary of defense, and national security advisor didn't stir up as much controversy as his pick for CIA director.

Word is, and you know how the word is, that Obama had been leaning to picking intelligence professional John Brennan, who advised him during the campaign, as CIA director. But that got blown up as it became apparent that Brennan could be linked to some of the politically toxic practices of the CIA during the Bush/Cheney years, namely the torture policy.

Which would make Feinstein's reported touting of current CIA Deputy Director Stephen Kappes very wrongheaded. Prior to becoming the number two person in George W. Bush's CIA, he was one of the people running the agency's clandestine operations division. To say that he can be linked to torture, rendition, Guantanamo, overly zealous surveillance practices, etc., is merely to state the obvious.

In any event, the contention of Feinstein -- a highly-briefed senator who was absolutely convinced of the existence of Iraqi WMD, incidentally, speaking of getting it dead wrong -- that an intelligence professional is always better than a non-professional ignores some of America's most important history. In the 1950s, CIA Director Allen Dulles was widely acknowledged as one of the world's pre-eminent spymasters. But it's hard to say how good he was, because most of what he did was shrouded in secrecy.

One thing that was not shrouded in secrecy was the Bay of Pigs, that famously dunderheaded plan to invade Cuba in 1961 which Dulles and some warhawk generals conned the young JFK into approving. After that, Kennedy vowed to "smash the CIA into a thousand pieces." After calming down, he made his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, the overseer of the intelligence community and brought in another Californian with no intelligence background, businessman John McCone, to run the CIA. McCone proved to be a highly effective CIA director, especially during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Leon Panetta addresses the Governors' Global Climate Summit in LA last November.

There's no reason to think that Leon Panetta can't be a very good CIA director following another period of notable CIA failures and scandals.

The former White House chief of staff and California congressman long chaired the House Budget Committee before serving in Bill Clinton's Cabinet as director of the Office of Management and Budget. While he has little previous direct experience in the intelligence field, he was a key member of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, widely excoriated on the right two years ago but whose blueprint is basically being followed today. As former OMB chief he has a handle on the intelligence budget. And as White House chief of staff, he was intimately involved with the flow of intelligence and knows how to use it.

Panetta's a widely respected figure with strong roots in the center/left of the Democratic Party. He actually played a lead role in corralling Hillary Clinton supporters to come over to the Obama camp after the freshman Illinois senator's nomination victory had become evident to most. He described some of the die-hard Clintonites as having a sense of "entitlement."

Which gets at a point I made at the top. To say Panetta is a Clinton retread is to ignore his actual background. He was a key member of Congress when Bill Clinton was the youngest ex-governor in American history.

But the differences are deeper than that.

Panetta comes out of a tradition which is almost forgotten today, that of the liberal Republican. Brought up on a farm near California's beautiful Monterey Bay, after taking his degrees at Santa Clara University the young Panetta became an aide to Senator Tom Kuchel, one of the last of the liberal Republican senators. Following Richard Nixon's election as vice president in 1953, Kuchel was appointed to the Senate by Governor Earl Warren, the liberal Republican who was one of California's greatest governors before going on to become even more consequential as chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

When Richard Nixon ran against Pat Brown for governor of California in 1962, Kuchel stayed neutral. In 1964, Kuchel backed Nelson Rockefeller over Barry Goldwater in the Republican presidential primaries.

But the hard, backlash right was coming on strong in the Republican Party in the mid to late 1960s, reacting against the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, and the counterculture. In 1968, Senator Kuchel was defeated in the Republican primary by a fellow named Max Rafferty, the state's superintendent of public instruction. Rafferty went on to be crushed by Alan Cranston in the general election. Two years later, ironically, Rafferty was again crushed when he ran for re-election as school's chief by the first African-American to win statewide office in California, Wilson Riles.

Despite Kuchel's defeat, Panetta didn't give up on his liberal Republican ideal. When Richard Nixon won the presidency in 1968, he reached out to his friend Bob Finch, another liberal Republican who was lieutenant governor of California, and made him secretary of health, education, and welfare. Finch in turn made Panetta director of the department's Office of Civil Rights.

Where the young Panetta then proceeded to try to enforce civil rights laws. Unfortunately for him, the Nixon White House was sold on the so-called "Southern strategy" -- encouraging the backlash to civil rights and black power -- which played a big part in Nixon's narrow election win. With the White House bearing down on him, Panetta left and became an aide to another liberal Republican, then New York Mayor John Lindsay. Finally he went back home to Monterey, where he became a Democrat and a few years later unseated an incumbent Republican congressman in 1976.

In a debate last January against Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama laid out a different path decrying the "politics of fear."

Panetta's selection points up the difficulty Obama has had in filling the post. Too many people deeply involved with the intelligence community can be linked to the highly controversial practices of the Bush/Cheney Administration on torture, rendition, and widespread surveillance. Even LA Congresswoman Jane Harman, a sometime Feinstein protege who wanted the post, had problems in that area for supporting some of the Bush/Cheney moves. Which is why House Speaker Nancy Pelosi blocked Harman from becoming chair of the House Intelligence Committee.

Panetta, in contrast, is a strong opponent of torture. Which in addition to the moral issue and the Geneva Convention problem, just doesn't seem to be very effective.

Last year, in the Washington Monthly, he wrote:

Those who support torture may believe that we can abuse captives in certain select circumstances and still be true to our values. But that is a false compromise. We either believe in the dignity of the individual, the rule of law, and the prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, or we don't. There is no middle ground.

Panetta will work with and under retired Admiral Dennis Blair, the former head of Pacific Command who I noted not long after Obama's election was going to be Obama's director of national intelligence.

Panetta, who had been talked up several times as potential candidate for governor of California, has been heading up his own public policy center at Cal State Monterey Bay for the past decade. An ally of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was the featured guest at a big fundraiser for the Panetta Center in late 2008, Panetta helped Schwarzenegger pass the first redistricting reform initiative in the country last November. Panetta is also on the board of the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), whose poll my New West Notes subscribes to.

Pat Buchanan compared Panetta yesterday to Ted Sorensen, the JFK counselor and speechwriter whose nomination by Jimmy Carter to be CIA director was withdrawn. But Sorensen had been a conscientious objector, a problematic thing for his appointment, whereas Panetta was a decorated Army officer.

Panetta is a strong though amiable figure who actually knows a lot about the intelligence world without being part of the cult of intelligence. That sounds like a good thing for a CIA that in this decade has gone from from the heights of managing a swift covert war in Afghanistan in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 to the depths of WMD and Guantanamo.

For one thing, he doesn't have any involvement of his own from the past eight years to cover up. For another, he is a savvy consumer of intelligence and a strong manager, a team builder who does not suffer from the usual Beltway misapprehension that he is the smartest guy in the world. Finally, his background shows that he has real principles and yet knows how to be pragmatic.

I think Feinstein will get over her fit of pique.