“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 President Obama picked him for a different job in which he had very little experience: as 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. At his confirmation hearing in February 2009, he caused a stir when he testified that he believed the George W. Bush administration had transferred prisoners to other countries for the purpose of torture, although he backpedaled slightly after he was criticized by Republicans.
Panetta deftly outmaneuvered rivals in bureaucratic battles, fending off efforts by then-Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair to assume greater control over overseas posts. More important, the man who once ran the White House for Bill Clinton forged a close relationship with his new boss, Obama.
“I would expect that pattern to follow,” said Lee H. 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.”
Hamilton said Panetta would prove a quick study at the Pentagon but did not minimize the immediate challenges facing him: the long-standing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the international military intervention in Libya.
“There’s no on-the-job training to become secretary of the Department of Defense,” Hamilton said. “By definition, it’s an impossible job. You can only make an educated guess, I suppose, on how a person will perform based on their track record.”
Expert in money matters
After a decade of rapid growth in military spending, the Pentagon is confronting lean times as the government grapples with record deficits. Defense Secretary Robert M. 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 end of the Cold War.
“What Panetta will be doing is laying the groundwork,” said Lawrence J. 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.’ ”