Intel Community Sees Potential in Panetta

Created: January 05, 2009 19:47 | Last updated: July 31, 2020 00:00

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2009/01/panetta1.jpgLeon Panetta (National Marine Sanctuary Foundation)

The surprising news that former congressman and White House chief of staff Leon Panetta will be tapped to head the CIA represented an about face for President-elect Barack Obama’s early effort at putting an intelligence veteran at the top of the nation’s chief spy agency. But initially at least, the Panetta pick has not generated consternation from intelligence veterans, despite his lack of experience with intelligence.

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

Although there is concern about putting an inexperienced director in place during wartime, some longtime intelligence officials see Panetta’s proximity to Obama as a silver lining, as having a director with Panetta’s close ties to Obama may ensure the agency’s continued relevance.

“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.

That looks to be the instant conventional wisdom. Outside of some intelligence planning work he did while in the Army in the 1960s, Panetta’s experience in the intelligence world is minimal. Obaman’s plans to appoint him are a throwback to an earlier era of CIA chiefs who earned their jobs thanks to political fealty to the president. Panetta, a longtime member of the Washington establishment, publicly criticized Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential campaign during the hard-fought primaries in early 2008 — something that was particularly valuable to Obama at the time, given Panetta’s service as President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff. In that respect, Panetta resembles directors like William Casey, who ascended to the head of Langley in 1981 after chairing Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign. But even Casey, one of the most political CIA directors in history, served in the Office of Strategic Services, the World War II-era forerunner of the CIA.

“Totally political types as head of CIA tend to ruffle feathers, since the [intelligence community] is a complicated, tribal place,” said the recently retired intelligence official.

Still, intelligence veterans interviewed by The Washington Independent were noticeably sanguine about the appointment. 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.”

A Democratic official confirmed that Panetta will be the pick — a development first reported by The New York Times on Monday afternoon — and that ret. Adm. Dennis Blair will be the director of national intelligence, the overall head of the intelligence community. Transition officials would not discuss the process that led to the selection of Panetta and Blair.

As a result, the leadership of the intelligence community at a time of war will be a relatively inexperienced one. While Blair served as the CIA’s first-ever liaison to the military before retiring from the Navy in 2002, “Denny’s experience is not that deep,” said the retired senior official — something that might indicate that Panetta will be at least as influential to Obama as Blair. “He had a stint out at Langley ten years ago, he’s not an intel expert,” the retired official continued. “Matching Denny’s political clout against Panetta, I’d be more inclined to pick Panetta, not vice versa.”

Earlier in the transition, Obama signaled that he was looking within CIA circles for the agency’s new leadership. But in late November, the leading candidate for the job, John Brennan, a former senior intelligence official under director George Tenet, withdrew from consideration to be CIA director after Salon’s Glenn Greenwald criticized statements Brennan made for reflecting a cavalier disposition to the torture of detainees in CIA custody and the so-called “rendition” of detainees to countries that commit torture. The selection process — which Brennan still chaired — was believed to focus on longtime intelligence hands who were uncorrupted by the Bush years, when abusive interrogations received official sanction. Panetta’s appointment indicated to several intelligence veterans that too many of their colleagues could either not withstand scrutiny or would generate too much controversy. “People were done in by the past,” said Tyler Drumheller, former chief of CIA operations in Europe during the Bush administration.

Panetta, by contrast, has written forcefully against the use of torture in interrogations. “We either believe in the dignity of the individual, the rule of law, and the prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, or we don’t,” he wrote in the Washington Monthly last year. “There is no middle ground.”

“I’d rather they picked someone from the operations part, but that was probably wishful thinking anyway,” said Drumheller, who added that he thought Panetta would make a fine director. “The people who weren’t tainted by the Bush years were probably too far removed what’s going on.”

Yet few expect Panetta to conduct a purge of the agency over torture — as Porter Goss, the congressman tapped by George W. Bush in 2004, conducted to weed out those considered insufficiently loyalty to Bush’s politics. “It won’t be ‘everyone submit their resignations and I’ll sort it out,’” Drumheller said. “The president might have to sort out senior people, who could go before Congress and explain why they did these things. In part they were following orders.”

Panetta’s announcement did not please everyone. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the incoming chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that will hold Panetta’s confirmation hearing, all but denounced the choice. “I was not informed about the selection of Leon Panetta to be the CIA Director,” Feinstein said Monday afternoon. “I know nothing about this, other than what I’ve read. My position has consistently been that I believe the agency is best-served by having an intelligence professional in charge at this time.” Feinstein spokesman Phil LaVelle said the senator had not yet scheduled a confirmation hearing.

Bob Graham, the former Democratic Florida senator and governor who chaired the Senate intelligence panel from 2001 to 2003, welcomed the Panetta pick. “He’s an extremely able person, having been both in Congress for many terms and as chief of staff for President Clinton,” Graham said. “He understands the needs of users of intelligence. That’s very valuable as he shapes and leads the principle human intelligence agency of the United States.”

Drumheller was more skeptical that experience receiving intelligence from the CIA was particularly relevant for an incoming director. “That doesn’t mean anything,” he said. More important will be an ability to determine whether the agency veterans will try and take advantage of his inexperience. “The problem with the agency is that people will be defending what they’ve done” in the realm of interrogations and detentions, rather than simply explaining it, Drumheller continued. “That’ll waste people’s time, frankly: ‘We did what [WE] did because we were told to by the president.’”

The retired senior CIA official agreed. Panetta will “have to embrace the professionals, but maintain the healthy agnosticism about what he’s being told, particularly early on,” the ex-official said. “I’m not saying they’re dishonest, but sometimes you really have to roll sleeves up, [to avoid agency-led debacles like] the Bay of Pigs and that nonsense.”

All CIA veterans interviewed for this piece agreed that it was imperative Panetta not enter Langley with too many preconceived notions. “Much depends on what his approach is,” said the retired senior official. “If he comes in [with the attitude] to set [the] place right or with an agenda, then he’ll run into a buzzsaw.”