- The Washington Times - Friday, January 9, 2009


Barack Obama continues to surprise, in different ways. The selection of Leon Panetta by the president-elect to head the Central Intelligence Agency was unexpected for an incoming administration that has emphasized change but so far made relatively noncontroversial appointments.

Although a very experienced Washington veteran, including service as chief of staff for President Bill Clinton, Mr. Panetta lacks direct intelligence credentials.

Simultaneously, providing some professional and political balance, retired Adm. Dennis Blair has been named to serve as director of national intelligence, to provide overall supervision of intelligence activities. The president-elect indicated he plans to bolster this position.

Criticism of Mr. Panetta’s inexperience should not be persuasive in advance of performance. Candidate Obama devoted sustained emphasis to intelligence reform given harsh criticism, emanating in part from intelligence and military professionals, regarding the morality as well as legality of torture of prisoners.

CIA heads have usually been from within the intelligence establishment, but not always. Ronald Reagan chose New York corporate lawyer William Casey from the outside to shake up covert operations. Mr. Casey did just that, with considerable resulting political controversy, in particular regarding the Iran-Contra affair.

In the wake of the Bay of Pigs disaster, President John Kennedy prominently publicly assumed responsibility, while privately vowing drastic change in the military-intelligence complex. CIA Director and top intelligence pro Allen Dulles was replaced with John McCone, a successful industrialist and Republican from California with no previous intelligence experience.

In an era of far more serious conflict between the White House and both the CIA and the Pentagon, McCone quickly established rapport with JFK and, in particular, Attorney General Robert Kennedy. He also obtained high marks in running the CIA, and was virtually the only senior Kennedy administration official rightly to predict the 1962 surreptitious Soviet move to place strategic missiles in Cuba, contrary to Moscow’s public declarations.

The appointment of Adm. Blair, following unprecedented reappointment of Bush administration Defense Secretary Robert Gates, is guaranteed to antagonize many on the political left, Mr. Obama’s initial national base of core support. There is also more general concern about military dominance of intelligence. During the Bush administration, appointment of Gen. Michael Hayden to head the CIA drew some sharp attacks.

As with criticism of Mr. Panetta, this argument ignores history. The first four directors of the Central Intelligence Agency were all senior military officers: Rear Adm. Sidney Souers, Gen. Hoyt Vandenberg, Vice Adm. Roscoe Hillenkoetter, and Gen. Walter Bedell Smith.

Smith, notably successful at CIA, had been chief of staff to Supreme Allied Commander Dwight Eisenhower during World War II. In retrospect, Ike and his team were remarkably effective in steering the United States through very turbulent Cold War years. Experience in the disciplined milieu of the military translated directly into success in the shadow scenery of the spy.

In tandem, Adm. Blair and Mr. Panetta may be an ideal team to bring effective policy change grounded in essential competence.

Arthur I. Cyr is a professor at Carthage College in Wisconsin and author of “After the Cold War.”

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