With Panetta, Pentagon gains savvy power broker

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates with Leon Panetta after yesterday’s official announcement in Washington. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates with Leon Panetta after yesterday’s official announcement in Washington. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)
By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post / April 29, 2011

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WASHINGTON — At 72, Leon Panetta is the oldest man nominated as defense secretary. But he has more experience in walnut farming than in strictly military matters, though he did briefly serve in the Army — almost a half-century ago.

What Panetta would bring to the Pentagon are two critical skill sets: how to play power politics in Washington and how to manage enormous sums of taxpayer money.

In a time of spending cuts and targeted programs potentially across the bureaucratic spectrum, those qualities are essential.

“Today we are a nation at war, and job one will be to ensure that we remain the strongest military power in the world, to protect that security that is so important to this country,’’ Panetta said yesterday after President Obama nominated him to be the next defense secretary. “Yet this is also a time for hard choices.’’

Panetta was chosen to replace Robert M. Gates — who is retiring in June — in part because of his background as White House budget director in the 1990s. He touched on the need for fiscal discipline and potentially redefining the nation’s military priorities in his comments.

“It’s about ensuring that we are able to prevail in the conflicts in which we are now engaged, but it’s also about being able to be strong and disciplined in applying our nation’s limited resources to defending America,’’ said Panetta, who is the director of the Central Intelligence Agency. “None of this will be easy.’’

To replace Panetta at the CIA, Obama nominated General David Petraeus, the architect of the buildup of US forces in Iraq to turn back an insurgency and the current commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan. Ryan Crocker, former ambassador in Baghdad, was nominated to be the next ambassador to Afghanistan.

In Panetta, the president taps a person who understands the levers of power, both in the White House and on Capitol Hill, where he served 16 years as a representative from California.

“What I bring is a broad range of experiences to this job,’’ he said. “I know Washington. I think I know how it works. I think I also know why it fails to work.’’

Panetta made that statement in February 2009, after Obama picked him for a different job in which he had very little experience, director of the CIA. At first, senators and spies alike expressed skepticism that an outsider with scant background in intelligence could survive at the shadowy bureaucracy.

During his stint at Langley, however, Panetta has largely swayed his critics by restoring calm to an agency still recovering from allegations that it tortured terrorism suspects after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Panetta deftly outmaneuvered rivals in bureaucratic battles, fending off efforts by Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair to assume greater control over overseas posts. More importantly, the man who once ran the White House for President Clinton forged a close relationship with his new boss, Obama.

“I would expect that pattern to follow,’’ said Lee Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana who has served on an external advisory board for Panetta at the CIA. “He will become a champion of the Department of Defense. But his loyalties will not be exclusive to the department. They will also be to the president.’’

After a decade of rapid growth in military spending, the Pentagon is confronting lean times as the government grapples with record deficits. Gates has cut numerous weapons programs in a drive to make the military more efficient, but Panetta could end up being the first defense secretary to shrink the military’s annual budget since the aftermath of the Cold War.

“What Panetta will be doing is laying the groundwork,’’ said Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress who was a defense official in the Reagan administration. “He will have credibility to be able to say, ‘We can cut this without jeopardizing our security.’ ’’

Panetta, who will turn 73 in June, served in the Army as an intelligence officer from 1964 to 1966 but was not deployed to Vietnam. Originally a Republican, he worked as a civil rights official in the Nixon administration but later switched parties.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.