Is Leon Panetta Just Mending Fences With Congressional Democrats?

Created: July 10, 2009 09:22 | Last updated: July 31, 2020 00:00

So we don’t know exactly what “significant actions” CIA Director Leon Panetta has acknowledged to the House intelligence committee were not properly briefed to Congress. Marc Ambinder tries to sort through the possibilities but understandably has to go a bit meta because — well, because he, like the rest of us, doesn’t know, really.

Among the things known: Panetta “put a stake” in the nebulous program, according to Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.), the senior Republican on the committee, when he learned about it following an internal review he launched about what the agency’s been up to for the past eight years. The Washington Post’s murderer’s row of reporters report that it was an “on again, off again” attempt to create a new intelligence collection capability related to counterterrorism, and run through the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center. Apparently it didn’t get off the drawing board but who knows. It wasn’t a covert action, which would have, by law, required reporting to Congress. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the head of the Senate intelligence committee — who’s conducting an investigation of CIA interrogation after 9/11 that’s created much anxiety inside the agency — told the paper instructions were specifically given “not to brief Congress.” Panetta has created an internal review of how the CIA briefs Congress. Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld once remarked that most inter-office disputes occur because someone felt out of the loop; clearly that advice had more salience to him and his Bush administration colleagues before January 2001.

One Bush administration official said the whole thing was “no big deal.” That might be my favorite blind quote about the program so far.

This, however, is a worth reviewing as an explanation for Panetta’s behavior:

Some Republicans, meanwhile, privately questioned whether Panetta — who has stood with CIA officers in a dispute with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) — was looking to score points with House Democrats.

Now, every CIA director is caught between three conflicting pressures: pleasing the administration; pleasing Congress; and pleasing his agency. The successful ones keep the plates spinning and find the time to focus on, like, keeping the agency collecting and analyzing vital intelligence. The unsuccessful ones tip too far in one direction or another. If Panetta really is out to make sure that the House Democrats retain confidence in him by needlessly revealing a sensitive program, then he’s kissed his credibility inside the agency goodbye. Would a longtime bureaucratic player like Panetta really do that? Would a longtime CIA veteran like Deputy Director Steve Kappes let him? I don’t know the answers, I’m just setting up the questions. Alternatively: could it be that Panetta thinks that if he doesn’t start going to Congress with accounts of mistakenly withheld programs, the public pressure to investigate the agency even *further *will intensify, and so he might view this disclosure as a necessary ante in order to spare the agency a deeper scrutiny?

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