Help Wanted—No Experience Necessary (Updated)

I was surprised at the appointment of former Congressman and White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta as the Director of Central Intelligence for the incoming Obama Administration

WASHINGTON — Leon E. Panetta, a former congressman and White House chief of staff, has been selected by President-elect Barack Obama to head the Central Intelligence Agency. The choice, disclosed Monday by Democratic officials, immediately revealed divisions in the party as two senior lawmakers questioned why Mr. Obama would nominate a candidate with limited experience in intelligence matters.

but not appalled as has apparently been the case among some both in the blogosphere and in the broader world. Specialist expertise isn’t the only qualification for department heads in the federal government nor necessarily the most important one. Attorneys General don’t typically try cases nor as a rule the things that lawyers are trained to do; the Secretary of the Treasury doesn’t do what an investment banker (or an economist) does; as I’ve noted before the Secretary of Energy doesn’t need to be a physicist since he or she doesn’t do science nor even what a lab director does; and the Secretary of State doesn’t necessarily have to be a diplomat.

For most of the country’s history the Postmaster General was traditionally the incoming president’s campaign manager.

The best imaginable candidate for each of those roles would be somebody who has the confidence of the people who work in the department which he or she is to head, the confidence of the American people, and, most importantly, the confidence of the president. That’s a tall order.

In the specific case of Leon Panetta’s appointment if those working for the CIA believe that having somebody as connected as Panetta will ensure they have the president’s ear, I suspect they’ll be disappointed. I sincerely hope that President-Elect Obama hasn’t picked Mr. Panetta thinking that he’ll be able to rein in the agency. Multiple successive presidents have been disappointed with their abilities to control the Central Intelligence Agency.

There’s an interesting pattern emerging in the new administration’s appointments. The new Secretary of the Treasury will be an economist; the new Secretary of Energy will be a physicist; the new Attorney General will be a lawyer; the new National Security Advisor will be a soldier UPDATE:; the new Director of National Intelligence will be a retired admiral. The new Secretary of State, Director of National Central Intelligence, Secretary of the Interior, Secretary of Agriculture, and Secretary of HHS are, except for Tom Daschle, lawyers and their primary expertise is political.

As I’ve noted before the incoming administration’s managerial experience is extremely limited and, frankly, I think they’re underestimating its importance. Now it may well be that lawyers and politicians are the best possible picks for these important roles to achieve the confidence of the departments they’ll head, the American people’s, and President Obama’s. If that’s right, we’ll be in for an interesting ride with the new administration. If it’s wrong, the downside risk is probably minimized by the civil bureaucracy.

Note: James Joyner has a round-up of blogospheric reaction to Panetta’s appointment.


Joe Gandelman has a fine round-up of reactions from the worlds of government and the media on the Panetta appointment. Or should that be “the world of government and the media”?

4 comments… add one
  • Andy Link

    The DNI nominee isn’t a lawyer, but a retired Admiral.

    I agree with your post though. Specialist expertise is overrated. As long as Panetta sticks to managing the agency and not trying to politicize or be his own intelligence analyst (like Doug Feith), I’ll basically be happy.

  • Ralph Hitchens Link

    It’s not so much a matter of reining in the Agency as reining in the Agency’s Jesuits, the Directorate of Operations. Panetta, from what I understand, is sort of a kinder, gentler Rahm Emanuel, so he might have a better shot at it than most politicos.

  • Well, if Obama picked a department insider he would have been criticized for not exercising proper control of the agency, and if he picked a total outsider he would be accused of not taking the agency’s work seriously.

    The CIA is a more serious matter than, say Interior. It’s always had a dangerous quasi-independence and the very nature of the business gives it rogue tendencies. I have never been a big fan of it, and find it fundamentally a poison in the American way. A necessary poison, some would say. (And unlike my liberal friends, I didn’t suddenly turn around and defend it as a paragon of freedom and democracy when Joe Wilson tried to influence foreign policy.)

    I think an outsider was necessary in this case. But I don’t think Panetta is tough enough to survive in that hothouse, or to do the reining in. Which should be done by someone. Or else it continues to become the fourth branch of government, with superpowers and answerable to no one.

Leave a Comment