What Spies Think of Panetta

02/09/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I thought what spies thought of the Panetta choice was important, so I conducted a poll, albeit a very unscientific one.

The results: "Obama was wise" to choose someone out of the torture loop to run the CIA. The problem: Not everyone in the clandestine service has spent the past six years waterboarding prisoners at Guantanamo.

"The job requires the sort of knowledge of intelligence collection that comes from experience," a veteran CIA operations officer told me. "There's no time that clandestinely acquired intelligence is more important than now."

Some would have preferred Steve Kappes, the Marine Corps officer who joined the CIA in 1981, distinguished himself as an operations officer, and now serves as Deputy Director. Others recognize Kappes lacks the political might of a Panetta to recapture support outside of Langley and extricate the CIA from the mire of the past eight years. However, spies play well by themselves, and they don't necessarily mind mire--when done properly, spying is "a dirty business." Which bring us back to their desire for someone accustomed to getting his uniform dirty.

No surprise there. Spooks are comfortable with spooks. Brush salesmen would probably respond similarly to a vacuum cleaner salesman being brought in to boss them around.

But what about the historical precedents in the intelligence business where experience was not a prerequisite for success in the director's job: John A. McCone and George H. W. Bush?

Answers: "Not good examples." McCone's highly relevant Atomic Energy commission experience was among the primary reasons President Kennedy appointed him. And Bush the First had been the "de facto ambassador to China"--due to American relations with the PRC at the time, there was no official embassy. The point: in that job, you're officially thisclose to clandestine operations. Unofficially, closer. And China is not France, a close ally whose free press does a better job providing "product" than any intelligence service could, or Britain, where, in deference to "cousins" MI6, the Agency's fundamental guiding principal is "stand down."

What about Panetta's résumé listing as White House chief of staff? In that position, you're thisclose to the President's Daily Brief, essentially the CIA's raison d'être.

Answers: The chief of staff experience helps but also, as it happens, accounts for two more perceived strikes against Panetta in Spook City:

1. The CIA's relationship with the White House was so distant at the time that "when a small plane crash-landed on the White House lawn in 1994, the joke was that it was [then-CIA-director] Jim Woolsey just trying to get a meeting with the president."

2. Panetta's legacy as "a strong manager" is tainted by his "arrogance."

As to Woolsey, Panetta already knows his way around, and presumably into, the West Wing. As for arrogance, Niccolo Machiavelli was unavailable for comment for this article, but it's probable he would have said, "We'll take it." Again unlike Woolsey, Panetta reportedly had no difficulty getting Clinton's attention.

Mr. Panetta also was unavailable for comment for this piece. Here's hoping it was because he was busy catching up on case files--or in a meeting with Kappes. And that Barack Obama's intelligence is better than Langley's.