President-elect Barack Obama's pick of Leon Panetta as director of the Central Intelligence Agency caught Washington by surprise.
A city of know-it-alls, Washington does not like surprises. As a result, the initial reactions to the appointment of Panetta — a former California congressman who served as Bill Clinton's budget czar before moving on to become his White House chief of staff — oscillated between quizzical and hostile.
Insufferable as Washington may be, it is nothing if not flexible. Once the residents of Capitol Hill have a chance to untangle their knotted knickers, the Senate will likely confirm Obama's Panetta nomination, which is expected to be made official any day now.
There are several reasons why Panetta may turn out to be a good choice. The word "may" is a necessary qualifier because the CIA is — even by Washington standards — such a wreck. Long plagued by its own bureaucratic shortcomings, the CIA has seen its questionable reputation further compromised by its submission to Vice-President Dick Cheney's bullying. Cheney, after all, demanded a green light from the agency for President George Bush's loathsome Iraq War. And then there is the indelicate issue of the agency's complicity in Bush's torture program.
If Panetta is confirmed — and the Phoenix hopes that he is — he'll have his work cut out for him.
The foundation for Panetta's appointment is his unqualified opposition to torture. Too many of the likely prospects for the job in the so-called intelligence community were — at a minimum — passive enablers of torture. Panetta brings clean hands to the job of shoveling out at least that stall in the CIA's muck-mounded stable.
But Panetta comes with more than a sense of decency. His tenure in the Clinton White House gave him a seat at the national-security table, where all top-level secret operations and programs of the Clinton administration were conceived, executed, and maintained. Panetta knows how and where the money is, and how it fuels and lubricates this secret world.
Panetta is no babe in the woods, either. A well-respected former eight-term congressman and presidential chief of staff, he is an experienced Washington in-fighter. Panetta will need every scintilla of guile he can muster if he is to clean up the CIA.
Attracting even more attention than the Panetta appointment is the unfinished business of the 2008 election season: finalizing the Senate seat choices for Minnesota, Illinois, and New York.
It looks as if sardonic comedian turned progressive politician Al Franken has eked out a narrow 225-vote victory over the Republican incumbent, right-wing nut-boy Norm Coleman. Coleman has said that he will challenge the outcome in court. But so far, Franken has won every round of the tangled recount battle. (For once, the Democrats seem to have better election lawyers than the Republicans.) While almost any Democrat would have been better than Coleman, you've got to love the fact that his replacement is the author of Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Liar.
Even more thrilling is the wrangle over whether former Illinois attorney general Roland Burris will be seated to serve the remaining two years of Obama's Senate term. If the television clips of Burris are any indication, the man seems to be a model of self-satisfied pomposity. This suggests that Burris will be well-suited to Senate life.