The selection of Leon Panetta to serve as President-Elect Barack Obama's Director of the Central Intelligence Agency is a remarkably good choice. In December 1976, Panetta and I attended our first orientation session for newly elected members of the freshman class of the 95th Congress. While we did not know each other at the time, over the years we became close colleagues and friends. We worked together on the House Agriculture Committee on agriculture and nutrition issues, and we tackled tough budget matters together. Ironically, Leon and I shared a background in education -- he at the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (now HHS) working on a major school desegregation case involving my home town of Wichita, Kansas. Later I became a member of Wichita's School Board.
Leon and I also served together in the Clinton Administration. In my role as Secretary of Agriculture I worked with Leon almost every day when he was Chief of Staff to the President. I am personally well aware of his role in managing the chaotic atmosphere of the executive office of the President, which often required his steady hand and warm sense of humor in getting everyone -- from the President on down -- to work collaboratively and according to principles of good management. I know from personal experience that it was not always an easy chore. He accomplished it by being firm and forceful, but always respectful. There is no doubt that Leon was always a natural leader, consensus builder, budget hawk, and all around exceptional public servant with a moderate political perspective. He earned well-deserved respect from both sides of the aisle.
During a portion of my time in Congress I served as a member of the House Intelligence Committee and as its chairman from 1993 to 1995. Over the course of those years I came to respect the highly qualified folks who served worldwide in our intelligence agencies. Their work, which protects American lives on a daily basis, often goes totally unrecognized despite the fact that their duties often involve great personal risk to their safety. In the current environment where fears of terrorism are felt worldwide, those risks have grown.
Having such a close view of the intelligence community convinced me that it could not operate in a vacuum unrestrained from congressional and executive branch oversight. Certainly, the events of recent years have proven this to be true. Leon Panetta is a patriot, a veteran, and a consensus builder. Those qualities alone make him well-equipped to lead the CIA. But, he is also a man with strong views and convictions as to what is right and wrong. In my judgment, Leon Panetta will be one of the most dedicated Central Intelligence Agency directors in its history. He will bring a fresh outside perspective to the job, and he will couple it with respect for the professionals in the intelligence community, particularly the dedicated men and women who risk their lives every day in an unpublicized way for their country. And, he will do it forthrightly and in full respect for the law and the Constitution. I frankly cannot think of a better choice.