This editorial appeared in The Miami Herald.
If President-elect Barack Obama wanted to send a message that change is coming to the Central Intelligence Agency, he could hardly have done better than to pick someone with Leon Panetta's know-how and experience as the next director. The surprise choice drew a cool response from some members of Mr. Obama's own party because he has no background in espionage and intelligence, but Mr. Panetta's sound judgment and views on policies are exactly what the CIA needs.
Mr. Panetta has minced no words in condemning the interrogation and detainee-treatment policies that the Bush administration has allowed the CIA to employ after 9/11. "All forms of torture have long been prohibited by American law and international treaties respected by Republican and Democratic presidents alike," he wrote back in March. "Torture is illegal, immoral, dangerous and counterproductive." The CIA claims it does not use torture, but that seems to be more semantics than substance. Mr. Panetta's selection signals the end of that game.
Mr. Panetta enjoys a reputation as a superb manager and budget expert. Those skills don't necessarily make him a good spymaster, but as a former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, he is familiar with the vital role of the CIA in keeping the president informed of events around the world and able to anticipate developments before they burst into crises.
From flawed assessments about Saddam Hussein's arsenal to the use of harsh interrogation methods, the CIA has been criticized by civil libertarians who believe it has violated the law and by hard-liners who believe it has become ineffective. This has led to a demoralization of the agency that someone like Mr. Panetta can do much to improve by doing away with discredited policies and restoring the CIA's tradition of providing impartial, nonpolitical analysis, regardless of what the president – or vice president – wants to hear.
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