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CQ: CIA Operations Folks Dissatisfied With Panetta

My CIA sources on Monday were surprised but not so dismayed by the news that Leon Panetta is President-elect Barack Obama’s choice to head the agency. Jeff Stein’s CIA sources yesterday? Much more dismayed.

Writing in his CQ column, Jeff talks to veterans of the CIA’s operations directorate — the people who recruit spies, gather information, try to infiltrate governments and extremist organizations and, yes, interrogate detainees these days — and finds that they don’t see how Panetta has the skills necessary to lead the agency in wartime. Here’s Sam Faddis, a 20-year operative who retired earlier this year who calls himself “a big supporter of President-Elect Obama.” He says the central problem facing CIA is that it’s doing a poor job of intelligence collection:

“To fix that you need to get down in the weeds and really address the nuts and bolts of how CIA is performing its mission. You cannot do that unless you understand the business, and, frankly, you probably can’t do it unless you have been out on the street doing the work yourself.”

No outsiders need apply, in other words.

Clearly, there’s something to the idea that experience matters, familiarity with the profession matters and the details matter. And the “steep learning curve” that a few intelligence veterans told me independently of each other that Panetta faces is particularly steep in his case. But, to quote the fictional words of Commissioner Ervin Burrell, “that’s what the Deputy Ops is for.” In this case, the CIA’s deputy director for operations. You’d never want someone in that job without that experience and that skill set. The director’s job is much broader. It’s easy to imagine someone in the analysis directorate — the people who interpret the collected information — making Faddis’ exact same argument for why a CIA analyst ought to get the job.

In any case, this is probably another reason why Panetta may keep Steve Kappes as his deputy director. (It’s a different job than deputy director for operations, which is the top job at the National Clandestine Service, but a few pegs below deputy director.) A fair question to ask, though, is whether that means Panetta will be dependent on Kappes for mastering the learning curve, essentially making Kappes shadow director.

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