WASHINGTON, Jan. 6 (UPI) -- U.S. President-elect Barack Obama has picked another vastly experienced Washington insider to run the $60 billion a year U.S. intelligence community, but in choosing former White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta, he has uncharacteristically gambled big on an outsider with no direct experience of working in intelligence. This could prove disastrous.
Picking Panetta for one of the toughest and most thankless jobs in the U.S. government may prove to be a disastrous misstep, or it may prove to be brilliant. Sometimes, outsiders picked to run gigantic U.S. government agencies or departments do exceptionally well precisely because they are outsiders who can bring a fresh dimension to old problems.
One classic example was the late James Webb, who served as the very best chief administrator the National Aeronautics and Space Administration ever had back in the 1960s.
Many of Panetta's critics fear he will be a disaster the way outgoing President George W. Bush's choice of Porter Goss as director of Central Intelligence proved to be. Goss had followed the CIA closely, as a fierce critic of its alleged ineptitude, as a conservative Republican congressman from Florida, but he proved a bad joke as DCI, putting unqualified cronies in positions of major responsibility and generally wrecking the agency's Directorate of Operations.
Panetta's supporters argue he may be able to avoid those fiascoes, however. Unlike Goss, he has had extensive and highly successful experience in knowing how government works. But there are many strikes against him as well.
Obama has outraged powerful Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., by picking Panetta. Feinstein has already warned she is angry that she was not consulted about the selection and believes Panetta lacks the experience to do the job.
It certainly has been the case in recent years that the most effective directors of Central Intelligence, such as the late Bill Casey under President Ronald Reagan, his right-hand man Robert Gates, who ran the agency under President George Herbert Walker Bush, and Gen. Michael Hayden, who cleaned up the mess Goss left under the current President Bush, were all immensely experienced in the fields of intelligence and national security before they took the job. Panetta is not.
Also, the Clinton administration that Panetta presided over as White House chief of staff had many proud accomplishments to its credit, especially in the area of fiscal and meager-economic management. But running national intelligence was not one of them.
The disastrous pattern of manipulating intelligence and suppressing potentially embarrassing reports reached its apogee under the current president, but it was already getting far worse under Clinton.
Most damagingly, the national security officials in the Clinton administration whom Panetta will most probably lean upon and listen to were catastrophically complacent, passive and ignorant in failing to recognize the growing threat of al-Qaida, even after it had bombed two U.S. embassies in East Africa and killed hundreds of people.
The CIA and the FBI were both hogtied by endless bureaucratic and legalistic constraints that allowed al-Qaida cells to establish themselves within the domestic United States and plot the Sept. 11, 2001, atrocities with impunity during the years Panetta was chief of staff.
During those years, one of Panetta's closest associates was then-national security adviser Sandy Berger, who, after leaving office, publicly admitted to having stolen hundreds of pages of top-secret national security documents from the U.S. National Archives and then destroying them.
One of the issues that apparently impressed Obama in picking Panetta was that the former White House chief of staff and California congressman is on the record as unequivocally condemning the use of any form of torture, so he should help the agency free itself from that taint if he is confirmed.
However, it was precisely the Clinton administration's national security team's obsession with running a legalistically and morally clean ship that spared Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenants in al-Qaida.
Reluctance to act decisively and ruthlessly against the bin Laden plotters enabled them to perpetrate the attacks of Sept.11, 2001. On at least one occasion, the CIA and the U.S. armed forces had the chance to pre-emptively kill bin Laden, whose determination to carry out mega-attacks against United States was well known. But by the time lawyers' and political administrators' approval had ponderously filtered back down the chain of command, bin Laden was out of range of a missile attack and the chance was lost.
If Panetta is confirmed and then concentrates on keeping intelligence operations simon-pure, the results could prove to be even more catastrophic on a far grander scale.
Nor will Panetta's appointment please the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, of which Feinstein is a prominent leader. In that sense, it may prove politically to be the worst of all possible worlds for Obama. Republicans and centrists who applauded his retention of Bob Gates as secretary of defense and his appointments of former Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Jones as national security adviser and former Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki to clean up the Veterans Affairs Department certainly will not extend that approval and support to Panetta. And as Feinstein's reaction already has shown, he does not please liberals either.
Also, Obama up to now has had an exceptionally smooth-running transition period, with his senior appointments coming earlier, and being well received and even applauded across the board, to a degree seldom seen in recent decades.
However, in the last few days, a wheel has come off this smooth-running juggernaut. Former Energy Secretary and Ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson has resigned from his expected appointment as secretary of commerce, even before taking office, because of an ongoing investigation into possible corruption connected to campaign finance donations. It may prove to be an ill omen for Panetta that Feinstein's broadside at him follows that unanticipated setback.
The CIA certainly needs a fresh broom to sweep it clean from the reign of bureaucratic mediocrities, inexperienced and inept liberal soccer moms, arrogant and incompetent conservative ideologues and the flight of genuinely able, hard-driving veterans that have bedeviled it in recent years. But by experience, record, priorities and instincts, Panetta does not appear to be that person.