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In Defense of Leon

Author: Leslie H. Gelb, President Emeritus and Board Senior Fellow
January 7, 2009
The Daily Beast


The critics grumbling that Leon Panetta isn't qualified to head the CIA are missing the point: Only an outsider can save Langley.

Whenever Washington insiders really want to guard their turf, they start putting out the word that a prospective boss is not a pro-and that what's really needed is a full-fledged pro. The latest example is the prospective nomination of Leon Panetta to be director of the CIA.

Here's how the game is played. The worst fights arise over prospective bosses at the State Department, the Pentagon, and especially the CIA. They're the high-profile departments, and their civil servants past and present have the best connections to the press based on long histories of providing juicy leaks. Whenever they sense a president might appoint someone who might actually try to change their engrained and self-congratulatory ways, out come the long knives of professionalism.

A professional is someone who is either a career official (something CIA people particularly like because they are especially devoted to their own craft) or someone who has a long track record of think tank work with occasional service in government. But the essence of being professional is not so much expertise per se, but demonstrating you can be "trusted," which means you're going to let the professionals pretty much continue to do what they want.

CIA veterans are the most determined protectors of their turf, and they want to be protected by one of their own. It's just not going to happen this time.


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