Panetta CIAThere is no question that Leon Panetta is a surprise choice for CIA director, but is he a wise one? Political scientist Amy Zegart calls the presumptive nomination “puzzling choice and a high-risk choice” because Panetta spent his career as a member of Congress and a Clinton White House advisor. Some members of Congress have expressed concern that he lacks sufficient qualifications in the intelligence field.

Conventional wisdom holds that appointees to specialized agencies should be experts in their fields. But some of the most successful appointees have been administrative politicians who managed relations with Congress, the White House, and states and localities. James Lee Witt was this kind of director when he led the Federal Emergency Management Agency during the agency’s golden years. Witt relied on a close circle of expert advisors for substantive advice, and he used his substantial administrative skill to implement their recommendations.

Panetta may turn out to be this kind of administrative politician if surrounds himself with qualified people. His qualifications as a politician and a manager are sterling. He’s also a natural policy wonk. Unlike his much-criticized predecessor Porter Goss, Panetta would do well to seek guidance from careerists in the agency who have spent decades in the intelligence business.