Friday, January 09, 2009

In Praise of Leon Panetta

The incoming Obama Administration has named its last major national security appointment, selecting Leon Panetta to serve as the head of the CIA.

Immediately, some members of the chattering classes commenced to wail. The biggest complaints came from some of the Democrats in the Senate who will have the job of confirming Panetta's nomination. Senator Diane Feinstein, the chair of the Senate Intelligence Oversight Committee, was among the most skeptical of the Panetta nomination.

After 8 years of institutional cowboys in an unregulated wilderness and the so-called leadership of a Congress with little willingness to challenge the president's authority, part of me is pleased to finally see that the Senate is willing to stand up to the president. It would be good for the republic if the Senate would take seriously its institutional role in American politics. But there is no need to complain about Leon Panetta, who will be an ally in maintaining the necessary separation of powers.

And if there is one executive agency that could use some reigning in, it's the CIA. My instinct is that Leon Panetta at the CIA may very well prove to be an ally on this front. Panetta's experience in national intelligence is once-removed but it is meaningful. As Bill Clinton's chief of staff he sat in on the president's daily intelligence briefings. He knows what presidents need from the CIA and he is likely to be a reliable in-house skeptic about the role and power of the agency. I count myself as one of the many Americans who are concerned that the CIA has gone to far in its willingness to subvert American values in pursuit of what they claim is security. I'd like to see the CIA in the hands of a capable manager who is open-minded about the strengths and weaknesses of the agency and its approach to national security. Panetta, who has served in both the legislative and executive branches knows a thing or two about checks and balances and separation of powers. That's exactly what we need at the CIA.

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