WASHINGTON - Leon Panetta, Barack Obama's surprise choice to head the CIA, clearly isn't someone with much hands-on national security or intelligence experience. But no one disputes that the man knows government.
The former eight-term congressman from California has had plenty experience in overseeing all aspects of the federal bureaucracy as a former chairman of the House Budget Committee, as budget director and then chief of staff for President Bill Clinton; and more recently as a member of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group.
"It is true that he doesn't have an intelligence background. But he certainly dealt with intelligence. In the Iraq Study Group, we dealt with it every day. He certainly dealt with it as chief of staff," said Democrat Lee Hamilton, former chairman of the House International Relations Committee and chairman of the Iraq Study Group. Panetta brings an "outside perspective" to the job, he said.
Still, Hamilton said, "I think it will be very important that Leon bring into his inner circle, onto his team, professional intelligence people."
Panetta, 70, who has an easy laugh and slightly owlish demeanor behind large round glasses, was popular on both sides of the aisle in the 16 years that he represented the Monterey, California, district where he was born to Italian immigrant parents. He still lives there today with his wife, Sylvia.
The couple founded the Leon and Sylvia Panetta Institute for Public Policy in 1998 and both serve as the institute's directors. It is based at California State University, Monterey Bay, which he helped establish on the site of the former U.S. Army base, Ford Ord, where he served while he was in the Army from 1964-1966. According to his biography, "the Institute serves as a nonpartisan, not-for-profit study center for the advancement public policy, seeking in particular to attract thoughtful men and women to lives of public service."
As a first lieutenant, Panetta did have some experience with intelligence work.
A former Republican, Panetta, began his public career as a congressional aid, served in the Nixon administration as an assistant secretary of health, education and welfare and director of the U.S. Office for Civil Rights. He later served as executive assistant to New York Mayor John Lindsey. A lawyer, Panetta became a Democrat in 1971.
In his long government career, he was "a very popular guy, a very steady hand, somebody who was able to get the job done without making a lot of enemies," said Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University. Baker said those traits should help Panetta overcome inevitable grumbling in the intelligence community.
Not everyone was persuaded.
"I know nothing about this other than what I read. My position has consistently been that I believe the agency is best served by having an intelligence professional in charge at this time," she said in a statement.