Panetta. Leon Panetta

When it comes to selecting the country’s head spook, our presidents have a pretty hit-and-miss history.

That’s why President-elect Barack Obama should ignore the sudden hysteria over his choice for director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Despite what some congressional critics are saying, there’s every reason to believe former California congressman Leon Panetta will do as well or better than most of his predecessors.

The ranking members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the incoming chair, already are grousing about his lack of hands-on experience in one of the intelligence agencies.

But it’s obvious that Panetta is a public servant of vast experience. His nine terms as a Democratic congressman from Monterey are well known, as are his highly successful stints as President Clinton’s White House chief of staff and as head of the Office of Management and Budget. His career embodies the kind of principled bipartisanship that Obama hopes will characterize his administration.

Panetta, a graduate of Santa Clara University and its law school, actually began his political career as a Republican. He first went to Washington in 1966 as an assistant to Sen. Thomas Kuchel (R-Calif.) -- yes, Virginia, California once had Republican senators. Panetta subsequently served as assistant to another leading California Republican, Robert Finch, who was President Nixon’s secretary of Health, Education and Welfare. Nixon then appointed Panetta director of the Office of Civil Rights.


Civil rights, equal opportunity and equal justice are Panetta’s lifelong passions. In a memoir, he recounts how his determination to enforce the Voting Rights Act brought him into conflict with partisans of Nixon’s “Southern strategy,” who agitated for his firing. Panetta eventually resigned and went to work for New York’s liberal Republican mayor, John Lindsay. The GOP’s hardening animosity toward civil rights, however, ultimately forced him to switch parties.

We could do worse than have a CIA director with a bit of spine -- and, as tragic recent history has shown, we have.

Then there’s the ahistorical issue of Panetta’s lack of “intelligence credentials.”

So what? CIA Director George Tenet brought a wheelbarrow full of intelligence experience to the director’s job, and he -- according to your view -- either gave President Bush misleading briefings on Saddam Hussein’s possession of weapons of mass destruction or deliberately stacked the deck to suit the prejudices of the Bush/Cheney White House. Tenet’s successor, Porter Goss, had actually served as a CIA agent before going to Congress. His brief tenure as director, by all accounts, virtually wrecked Langley.

Earlier directors of the agency, Richard Helms and William Colby, also had field experience as agents, and both had disastrous tenures in the top job. Allen Dulles, who helped found the agency and had nearly two decades of experience in intelligence work before becoming director, presided over the Bay of Pigs fiasco.

On the other hand, John McCone, the California businessman appointed by President Kennedy to succeed Dulles, was one of the rare CIA directors who came in without a minute of hands-on experience with the agency. However, as a member of the National Security Council, he had sent Kennedy a memo questioning a CIA report that concluded the Soviet Union never would run the risk of trying to place nuclear missiles in Cuba. McCone was proved correct.

Four years into his tenure as director -- and on the very eve of his own resignation -- McCone wrote then-President Johnson a memo warning that both international and domestic support for the war in Vietnam would be exhausted long before military operations would have any hope of defeating the North Vietnamese.

Not bad for an engineer with no “intelligence experience.”

Panetta, moreover, is far from a naif when it comes to the uses of intelligence. As White House chief of staff, he’s been at the apex of the intelligence community’s complex of customers. That alone will give him invaluable perspective on precisely what the agency needs to do to make itself genuinely useful.

Even more important is his vast experience in Washington. The CIA director does not recruit agents, decipher coded messages, perform analysis or run covert operations. He selects and supervises the professionals. Panetta’s background suggests he’s more than capable of that -- and, at 70, he probably will not have his eye fixed on the next rung up the ladder. America could do worse than have an experienced, principled, nonpartisan and honest CIA director, which is precisely what Leon Panetta will be.