Leon Panetta, the son of Italian immigrants, has spent most of his adult life in public service, rising up the ranks from lowly congressional aide to White House chief of staff, and now is poised to command the Central Intelligence Agency in the age of terrorism.
President Obama’s surprising nomination triggered opposition in the Senate, the intelligence community and among national security analysts because he has no significant experience in defense and intelligence fields and was seen as a bare-knuckled “political choice” to bring about major policy changes at the CIA — including an end to the sometimes aggressive interrogation of high-value terrorists during the Bush administration.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat and the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and her colleague on the panel, John D. Rockefeller IV, West Virginia Democrat, immediately criticized the appointment because of Mr. Panetta’s lack of national security experience. Mr. Obama talked to Mrs. Feinstein and Mr. Rockefeller, and they quickly fell in line behind Mr. Panetta’s confirmation.
But the former California congressman, who has dealt mostly with budget matters as chairman of the House Budget Committee and as President Clinton’s budget director, has created a sense of uneasiness among veteran national security advisers, even in Mr. Panetta’s own party.
“I do have reservations about Panetta as a CIA director. He’s a good man with accomplished government service and with some national security knowledge,” said Michael O’Hanlon, the ubiquitous foreign policy and military defense analyst in the Brookings Institution who often advises the Democrats on foreign policy issues. “However, he has never had a major job in national security and therefore this seems to be Obama’s weakest appointment in that sphere.”
The former nine-term congressman often voted against President Reagan on major military issues in the 1980s and was a critic of President Bush’s decision to go into Iraq. As a member of the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan panel of distinguished advisers who put together a broad list of recommendations on the war, he supported an early military pullout.
“The Iraq Study Group to my mind did not do a great job in its central recommendation — that U.S. combat forces leave Iraq by early 2008 — and as such I would not emphasize Panetta’s experience in that area as a major accomplishment,” Mr. O’Hanlon said.
“People can surprise you, but I would begin with a lot of skepticism about this choice.”
Still, Mr. Panetta is widely respected for his executive and organizational skills, which were on full display when he became Mr. Clinton’s chief of staff in the summer of 1994. His youthful White House staff appeared unfocused and in disarray and, as one of its Democratic critics said at the time, “needed a grown-up to insert some discipline in its ranks.”
He won wide praise for negotiating the 1996 budget compromise and bringing a sense of order and focus into the White House. As a no-nonsense chief of staff who put together Mr. Clinton’s agenda and day-to-day schedule, Mr. Panetta also oversaw his daily morning intelligence briefing.
“As a congressman, OMB director and White House chief of staff, he has unparalleled experience in making the institutions of government work better for the American people,” Mr. Obama said when he announced his nomination to head the nation’s far-reaching intelligence organization.
“He has handled intelligence daily at the highest levels and time and again he has demonstrated sound judgment, grace under fire and complete integrity,” he said.
The president’s appointment was surprising for a number of reasons, not only because Mr. Panetta supported Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Democratic presidential primaries and considered Mr. Obama unprepared for the job, but also because he was seen principally as a political leader whose career was steeped in political battles, crafting budget deals and legislating domestic issues.
On the other hand, he was in the center of the debate over the war in Iraq as a leading member in the bipartisan Iraq Study Group that reviewed intelligence failures in the run-up to the invasion and had deeply involved himself in intelligence policy as chief of staff when he helped shape the policy known as “extraordinary rendition.” That was the then-little-known practice of capturing terrorism suspects and sending them to other countries for aggressive interrogation, sometimes including torture, far from U.S. judicial procedures and oversight.
Mr. Panetta, now considered a senior statesman of his party, has traveled a long road to get where he is today. He was born in Monterey in 1938, went to Catholic and public schools and worked on his family’s farm in Carmel Valley before graduating from Santa Clara University, where he also earned a law degree.