The Panetta Precedent (UPDATED X3)

As is their style, conservatives are criticizing President-elect Obama’s choice of Leon Panetta as head of the CIA, citing his lack of intelligence and accusing him of being a “political hack.”

It’s true that Panetta doesn’t have intelligence experience. He served as a Congressman from California for 16 years, served as the White House Chief of Staff and went on to become Chancellor of the California State University system.

But there’s a precedent; there’s another instance when a political hack with no intelligence experience took the reigns of the CIA and did an outstanding job.

George H. W. Bush was appointed to head the CIA on January 30, 1976. He also had no intelligence experience to speak of, and—like Panetta—had only previously been a political hack: a Congressman for 4 years, a failed Senate candidate, UN Ambassador, RNC Chairman, etc.

In addition, Bush was appointed at a very difficult time in CIA history, right after the Church Committee’s revelations about illegal activities by the agency. But, in the end, Bush is widely credited with cleaning up the agency and boosting its morale.

In other words, you don’t necessarily need intelligence experience to be a good DCI. And, while people may argue that the world is more dangerous today than it was back then, I’d disagree: in 1976 we were in the midst of the Cold War, where the two most powerful nations in the world had massive nuclear arsenals aimed at one another at all times, where an intelligence failure–like what got us into the Iraq war–could have very well led to a global nuclear holocaust.

So, while conservatives might want to fight Panetta, they really don’t have a leg to stand on—unless they’re willing to completely rewrite history and throw George H. W. Bush under the bus.

UPDATE: Josh Marshall has more, including some skepticism of Sen. Feinstein’s and Sen. Rockefeller’s reluctance towards Panetta.

UPDATE II: Bayh’s on board with the Panetta pick.

UPDATE III: Feingold’s on board, too.