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Sunday, January 11, 2009

Gauging Panetta

One of the more interesting developments last week was the news of Obama's choice to head the CIA. First, a little background: As you know, the Bush Administration had the CIA disregard the Geneva Conventions so they could engage in "enhanced interrogation techniques" which are elsewhere generally referred to as "torture." As you also know, Obama has committed to ending these practices and restoring our country's good name.

Here's the problem: Given the nature of the chain of command, all the highest ranking officers in the CIA have been personally involved in some manner in implementing or at least passing on orders regarding Bush Administration interregation policies. So when it came time to choose the next CIA chief the Obama folks were left with three options: 1) Appoint an experienced CIA official who would might resist changes that implied their department, and indeed even him or herself, had committed wrongdoing, 2) reach way down into the chain of command and find someone who, although inexperienced, had not been involved in these practices, or 3) get creative.

Well, Obama chose door number three and got creative, tapping Clinton's former Chief of Staff Leon Panetta. I'll admit that I don't remember Panetta from back in the day (it wasn't until the election of 2000 that I became really politically engaged), but the general consensus seems to be that he's a smart guy who generally tries to get along with everyone and not make waves, but who has also over the last eight years repeatedly criticized Bush's interregation policies and insisted we should never resort to torture. The idea seems to be that Panetta might be someone who could make big changes in the CIA while simultaneously keeping the department (relatively) happy (ie. not feeling persecuted). While Panetta is an experienced consumer of intelligence as Clinton's Chief of Staff, that's where his relevant experience ends.

Diane Feinstein, head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, was initially nonplussed, remarking, "My position has consistently been that I believe the agency is best served by having an intelligence professional in charge at this time." Sen. Rockefeller expressed similar concerns. Some have speculated the real source of concern for these Senators is that they would be held accountable for their own complicity in approving the use of torture. Fortunately, after personal calls from Obama and Biden, as well as speaking to Panetta himself, Feinstein at least seems to have warmed to the idea a bit.

I found the range of opinions regarding this pick very interesting. Here's a sampling...


The Mercury News:

Panetta's appointment may be Obama's most surprising and most thoughtful. The former Congressional leader from Monterey and chief of staff to Bill Clinton has been focused on nonpartisan, good-government reform in California for the past decade. He has no direct intelligence experience. But he has the ability and, more important, the wisdom to do this job — which must include bringing about a culture change in the CIA while strengthening its ability to gather information. With Panetta at the helm, facts will not be filtered through ideology to justify anybody's political aim.

The word statesman is rarely applied these days, but Leon Panetta embodies it. California's loss will be the nation's gain.


Amy Zegart, UCLA professor

“It’s a puzzling choice and a high-risk choice,” said Amy Zegart, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who has written extensively on intelligence matters.

“The best way to change intelligence policies from the Bush administration responsibly is to pick someone intimately familiar with them,” Ms. Zegart said. “This is intelligence, not tax or transportation policy. You can’t hit the ground running by reading briefing books and asking smart questions.”


SanFran Chronicle:

Under changes established after Sept. 11, the job of briefing the president each morning no longer falls to the CIA director. That job now belongs to the director of National Intelligence, who oversees the CIA and other clandestine services. President-elect Barack Obama has reportedly chosen retired Adm. Dennis Blair for that job.

Under that structure, Panetta's lack of experience in intelligence and service overseas might matter less than his managerial and political experience - and his bipartisan reputation for integrity, several analysts said Monday.

"Panetta's significance will be as a politically adroit manager, not an intelligence professional," said political scientist Richard Betts, a specialist on national security policy and military strategy at Columbia University.

"No one individual has experience in many of the essential aspects of intelligence, which is a sprawling empire of technological surveillance systems, espionage, analysis, covert action and so on," Betts said. "At the top, you need someone who can bring it all together. Experience in some of the intelligence business helps, to be sure, but it's not enough."

What does matter, several analysts said, is the ability to win and hold trust - of the president, of Congress and of the rank and file in the CIA, all of whom will expect, and in some cases fear, big changes in the years to come.


CQ Politics reports the CIA reaction to the pick is "overwhelmingly negative:"

Charles "Sam" Faddis, who led a CIA team into northern Iraq before the 2003 invasion, says he had "already heard from a large number of rank and file within CIA on this choice, and the reaction has been overwhelmingly negative."

Faddis added:

"These are people who are sweating blood everyday to make things happen and living for the day that somebody is going to come in, institute real reform and turn the CIA into the vital, effective organization it should be. To them this choice just says that no such changes are impending and that all they can look forward to is business as usual."

A number of field operatives have voiced similar sentiments to me since word spread Monday that Obama had chosen Panetta, a former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton known for his budget expertise, to run the CIA. Panetta was also a Democratic congressman from the Monterey area of California from 1977 to 1993.

"His credentials do not warrant the appointment, especially in a wartime footing," said one CIA operative who has been pursuing al Qaeda in Afghanistan, in a typical remark.


But the Washington Independent reports that intelligence officials see potential in Ponetta:

“He has no intel background as far as I know,” said one recently retired intelligence official who requested anonymity, “and it’ll be a steep learning curve.” Within an hour, a retired senior official who also requested anonymity repeated the “steep learning curve” line unprompted. Yet both agreed that intelligence experience isn’t the only criterion for chairing the agency.

Some said that Panetta’s closeness with Obama would give the CIA a relevance with the White House that it chronically worries it will lose. When a small Cessna airplane crashed on the lawn of the Clinton White House in the 1990s, the joke around Langley was that the pilot was then-director Jim Woolsey trying to get an appointment with the president. This fear has been magnified in recent years, after Congress in 2004 stripped the CIA of its premier position within the community by creating an independent intelligence czar known as the director of national intelligence.

“There are probably many, like myself, who would rather see [a CIA veteran] in the job,” said the retired senior official. “But then you say, ‘If not, where do you turn?’ And here’s a guy who was White House chief of staff and obviously has a lot of political juice. Those who’d worry that the CIA will be relegated to a backseat position vis-a-vis the [Director of National Intelligence] can take heart.”


Steve Coll at the New Yorker:

The C.I.A. directorship is a diminished post, no longer in charge of the full intelligence community and subordinate to the Director of National Intelligence (who will apparently be Dennis Blair, a retired admiral.) Still, the C.I.A. director has four important jobs: manage the White House relationship; manage Congress, particularly to obtain budgetary favor; manage the agency’s workforce and daily operations; and manage liaisons with other spy chiefs, friendly and unfriendly. Panetta is thoroughly qualified for the first two functions but unqualified for the latter two. He seems to have been selected as a kind of political auditor and consensus builder. He will make sure the White House is protected from surprises or risks emanating from C.I.A. operations; he will ensure that interrogation and detention practices change, and that the Democratic Congress is satisfied by those changes; he will ensure that all of this occurs with a minimum of disruptive bloodletting. All good, but it is not enough. The essential problem is that Panetta is a man of Washington, not a man of the world. He’s seventy-years-old, spends his time on his California farm, and he’s been out of the deal flow, as they say on Wall Street, for about a decade; he knows California budget policy like the back of his hand, but what intuition or insight does he bring to the most dangerous territories in American foreign policy—Anbar Province, the Logar Valley, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas? Compared to his counterparts in Pakistan, Jordan, Israel, Britain, etc.—the critical relationships in national security that the C.I.A. Director alone can manage—he is a relative novice not only about intelligence operations but also about the foreign-policy contexts in which they occur. The country needs a better clandestine service. The C.I.A. has taken in an unusually talented pool of young case officers who volunteered after September 11th—probably as good a young talent pool as the government has had since the nineteen-sixties. But the agency they signed up for has been battered around and led by revolving door. Panetta may make the White House feel more secure about unfinished bureaucratic and operational reforms at Langley, but he is unqualified to forge the next-generation spy service that a country with as many enemies as this one has needs and deserves.


Robert Baer, former CIA official (portrayed by George Clooney in the film Syrianna):

Leon Panetta may not have an intelligence background, but his appointment as CIA director shows that Barack Obama understands the CIA's problems. As a former White House chief of staff, Clinton Administration budget director and eight-term California Congressman, Panetta knows his way around Washington better than most people, and that kind of knowledge is exactly what the CIA needs right now.

Panetta is experienced enough to understand that the CIA was the victim of political manipulation under the Bush Administration. It was the Bush White House that cherry-picked the intelligence on Iraq, not the CIA. Panetta will have the ear of the new President to walk him through all of this and to make the case that there is no point in throwing out the baby with the bathwater.


Laura Rozen at Foreign Policy mag's blog catalogs various reactions:

A former senior CIA manager said the message of the Panetta appointment was clear: "The message is, 'I don't want to hear anything out of the CIA. Make it go away. No scandals. Keep it quiet,'" the former officer told me. "They put over there a guy who is a political loyalist, who will keep everything nice and quiet, but who won't know a good piece of intelligence from a shitty piece of intelligence, and wouldn't know a good intelligence officer" from a bad one.

But former intelligence analyst Greg Treverton, now with the Rand Corporation, said Panetta's experience as a former White House chief of staff might give him a unique understanding of the presidency and its needs for intelligence. "One of my experiences with people like Panetta who have been chief of staff is that they have a clear sense of what is helpful to the president that most senior officials don't," Treverton told me. "They get it. What he could do and couldn't do. And that's an interesting advantage Panetta brings. Knowledge of what the presidential stakes are like, how issues arise, and what they need to be protected from, for better or worse."

Retired CIA deputy director for the East Europe division Milt Bearden said Panetta is a "brilliant" choice. "It is not problematic that Panetta lacks experience in intelligence," Bearden e-mailed. "Intel experience is overrated. Good judgement, common sense, and an understanding of Washington is a far better mix to take to Langley than the presumption of experience in intelligence matters. Having a civilian in the intelligence community mix is, likewise, a useful balance. Why not DNI?"

The Panetta choice also makes sense to him, said Philip Zelikow, a former counselor to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (and Foreign Policy writer). "The issues of presidential trust and clean hands are, at this moment in history, most important," Zelikow said by e-mail. "And even an 'intelligence professional' would have to rely on others in many ways. ... So Obama and his team have made a certain kind of tradeoff."


Fred Kaplan of Slate:

This has been Obama's persistent dilemma on the matter of picking a CIA chief (and the reason it has taken him so long to do so): finding someone who is a) up on the issues and the workings of the intelligence bureaucracy but b) not tainted by the Bush administration's record of renditions, torture, or extralegal surveillance.

Panetta's pick suggests that no such person exists—and that, if forced to make priorities, Obama values b) over a). Panetta has written articles denouncing the use of torture under any circumstances. In that respect, he is clean.

It is worth emphasizing, however, that Panetta is not as green to the spook world as some of his appointment's critics have maintained. In the 1990s, as President Bill Clinton's budget director and White House chief of staff, he was not just passively exposed to intelligence issues.

Richard Clarke, who was the White House counterterrorism director under Clinton (and, briefly, under Bush before resigning and then emerging as a celebrated critic), wrote in an e-mail today:

Leon was in all of the important national security meetings for years, both as [Office of Management and Budget] director and as chief of staff. He made substantive contributions well outside of his job description. And as OMB director, he was one of a very few people who knew about all of the covert and special-access programs.

Clarke's first point is crucial—Panetta knows, from experience, what a president wants and needs from intelligence reports, so he could represent the agency's views more cogently than many insiders might.

But the final point is important, too. These "special-access programs"—satellites, sensors, and other intelligence-gathering devices whose very existence is known only to those with compartmentalized security clearances—form a welter of costly, overlapping, ill-coordinated, and largely unsupervised projects that are run by private contractors to a greater extent than most people might imagine.

One former CIA official who is familiar with these programs (and who asked not to be identified) speculates that Panetta's main task might be to clean up not only the agency's high-profile mess—the "black ops" that have tarnished America's reputation around the world—but this budgetary-bureaucratic mess as well. Certainly, he knows where the line items are buried to a degree that few insiders can match.


Scott Horton, writing at Harper's:

I suspect that Panetta was chosen principally for his managerial skills, but secondarily because Obama wanted someone who would have a more powerful voice in Washington generally, and in Congressional circles in particular, than either Rockefeller or Feinstein.

Panetta’s task will be to put the agency back on firm ground in terms of policy; he will not want to micro-manage. He needs to put an end to the abuse of the agency at the hands of political hacks and ensure that its operatives go about their jobs as professionals, calling the facts as they see them and not telling the White House what it wants to hear. For eight years, while Rockefeller and Feinstein stood by, the agency was pressured by the Cheney shogunate to validate its fairy tales. This did not serve the nation’s security interest. Sober analysis that does not fear political meddling needs to be restored.

And Panetta has one other key trait. When he tells the nation and the world that the torture and mistreatment of prisoners and the program of torture by proxy has ended, people will believe him.


Richard Reeves:

"Washington's gain is California's loss," said Tracy Westen, director of the Center for Governmental Studies, a California think tank, when he heard that Obama intended to name Panetta director of the Central Intelligence Agency. You would think Washington might appreciate its gain. But, in fact, the intelligence establishment is already out to get Panetta. He is not one of them.

The CIA and some very good friends believe they work for themselves, not for the country. They prefer directors like George "Slam Dunk" Tenet, who came up through the ranks. The attack they will make is that appointing someone like Panetta would "politicize" the collection and interpretation of intelligence. I'm not sure what that means, since one of the problems of the last eight years has been the agency's -- or its directors' -- inclination to tell politicians whatever they wanted to hear.

Leon Panetta is as good as it gets. I do not know whether he can get control over the nasty internal politics of the CIA, but I do know he will tell the truth to the president, and that CIA analysts and spies work not for nameless bosses but for the people of the United States. If that is politicization, I am all for it.