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Is Panetta Experienced Enough?

With controversy swirling around Obama's selection of Leon Panetta for CIA chief, we approached a few respected intelligence experts for perspective. Those we spoke to were supportive of the choice and the theory that intelligence experience is not an absolute prerequisite for a good director. Paul Pillar, a professor at Georgetown University and former CIA officer, explained why he feels so confident:

I think he'll do fine. ... The director is not a line officer; he's not running cases and doing detailed analyses. He has to rely on many people in organization at various levels below him who are doing that- he has to exert leadership, he's not supposed to micromanage. Even someone coming up through the ranks is not going to be in a position to directly apply [his experience]; if it's experience from years ago, it might even be out of date.

Of course, not having served at the lower levels, you don't know the certain ways that the organization happens to operate and the ways intelligence officers react to things and do on junior or senior level. But even Robert Gates, who's often described as rising through the organization from the junior level, skipped over and parachuted to the upper levels as result of [former CIA director] William Casey. ...You have to have the ability to question and ability to make judgments, uphold standards of integrity, and not do the other person's job.

Gregory Treverton, an intelligence policy analyst at the Rand Corporation, is also cautiously optimistic about Panetta's prospects:

There are costs and benefits to not being an insider. On principle--especially if your main concern is credibility and oversight--having an outsider is a good thing. You need a fresh look at the business, someone who comes to the whole process of accountability and oversight afresh. ... Someone who's been chief of staff carries some advantages. The clandestine service would probably prefer one of their own. But the analytic side ought to be intrigued by the choice, because he knows what presidents need and like.

The downside--now that the CIA is even more dominated by the clandestine service than before--is that operational issues have a steep learning curve. An outsider who tries to make changes may become too reliant on his sherpas, get coopted, and pretty soon he could become a prisoner of the status quo.

--Suzy Khimm and Barron YoungSmith