Richard Reeves

Leon Panetta: Speaking Truth to Power

LOS ANGELES -- In January of 1970, President Richard Nixon tried a half-dozen times to get assistants to fire the young California Republican who headed the small Office of Civil Rights in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. It seemed the young man had told reporters that the Nixon administration was committed to civil rights and the rule of law, and that was why he was part of it.

The president's assistants, H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, tried to ignore the order because they worried about the reaction of civil rights organizations and the press. Finally, on Feb. 17, 1970, Nixon told his press secretary, Ron Ziegler, to announce that the director had resigned, which was news to the director.

In September of 1994, I was interviewing President Bill Clinton, thinking we might ramble on for hours as we had in the past. The Clinton White House was like that. After 25 minutes -- I had asked for a half-hour -- his new chief of staff came in with a big smile, a few words of greeting, and I was out of there. Suddenly, the White House did not feel like a fraternity house or an Internet startup anymore.

In last Thursday's Los Angeles Times, under the headline, "Obama Takes the State's Best Bet," the paper's veteran Sacramento columnist, George Skelton, wrote: "Thanks a bunch, Mr. President-elect. You've just taken away California's best hope for government and political reform -- reform necessary to save this state."

The hero of all three of those little stories, the young Republican fighting for civil rights, the Democratic chief of staff and the co-chairman of California Forward, is the same man: Leon Panetta.

In between, the same guy served eight terms in Congress, became chairman of the House Budget Committee and served as director of the Office of Management and Budget. He also sat in on the morning national intelligence briefing during his 2 1/2 years as White House chief of staff.

"Washington's gain is California's loss," said Tracy Westen, director of the Center for Governmental Studies, a California think tank, when he heard that Obama intended to name Panetta director of the Central Intelligence Agency. You would think Washington might appreciate its gain. But, in fact, the intelligence establishment is already out to get Panetta. He is not one of them.

The CIA and some very good friends believe they work for themselves, not for the country. They prefer directors like George "Slam Dunk" Tenet, who came up through the ranks. The attack they will make is that appointing someone like Panetta would "politicize" the collection and interpretation of intelligence. I'm not sure what that means, since one of the problems of the last eight years has been the agency's -- or its directors' -- inclination to tell politicians whatever they wanted to hear.

The first and most important person to attack the Panetta nomination was a longtime California colleague, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. The story is that she was miffed that the Obama folks had not let her know in advance about the Panetta appointment. I'm sure she was -- and had a right to be -- annoyed by that, but I don't think that was the principal reason she jumped in and suggested that her old friend was some kind of hack who had no intelligence experience.

The big reason, I think, is that members of Congress who serve on intelligence committees almost inevitably become co-opted by the "intelligence community." I've watched it happen to other senators -- Bill Bradley and Jay Rockefeller come to mind -- after they have had a secret or two whispered to them. They all adopt a small nod that apparently means, "If you knew what I know. ..."

I don't know what they know, and I don't know whether it is worth knowing. I do know that Leon Panetta is as good as it gets. I do not know whether he can get control over the nasty internal politics of the CIA, but I do know he will tell the truth to the president, and that CIA analysts and spies work not for nameless bosses but for the people of the United States. If that is politicization, I am all for it.

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