Was Panetta Picked in a Panic?

The gang over at The New Republic has been scrambling to develop and publicize a case that the choice of former Clinton White House chief of staff (and before that OMB director and eight-term congressman from northern California) Leon Panetta to head the CIA was something other than a serious misstep possibly resulting from something close to panic, quite likely because one or more better choices turned down the job. There is a case to be made, but I suspect the choice will turn out to be a serious mistake. There are just too many secrets unlikely to be shared with those outside a tight circle of veterans, too many wheels within wheels, for an outsider with no intelligence experience to be a very effective head of the CIA.

Former CIA operative and author Robert Baer and former White counterterrorism chief under Clinton and (for a while) under Bush Richard Clarke have been seeking to reassure people – and ingratiate themselves with the incoming administration? – at TNR.com. Baer argues that the choice "was likely influenced by the presence of Hillary Clinton at State and Robert Gates at the Pentagon … a CIA director from the ranks of the agency – an intelligence professional – no matter how capable and smart, would be eaten alive by Clinton and Gates." Panetta is veteran enough himself to hold his own and make sure the agency’s interests and assessments are taken seriously at the White House.

He also argues that "it hasn’t seemed to matter much whether the director was an intelligence professional or not," citing the case of former CIA operative and Congressman Porter Goss, who accomplished nothing more substantive than to antagonize most of the agency’s long-term staff. But despite Goss’ operational experience, he seems more analogous to Panetta, in that when Dubya appointed him, he was seen more as a political operative determined to whip the CIA into right-wing-friendly shape than a respected professional. He also moved clumsily (which Panetta admittedly is unlikely to do).

Baer recommends that "Panetta’s first task will be to remind Obama daily that it was the president and his team that cherry-picked the bad intelligence on Iraq, just as it was the administration that forced extraordinary renditions and torture on the CIA." (I’m pretty sure the former is true, contrary to what seems to be mainstream belief, but I remain mildly skeptical about the latter.) Boiled down, his argument is that a canny political operator like Panetta, who has the ear of the president, will be able to defend the CIA in turf battles, and just possibly has a chance to earn the trust of the professionals and mainly accomplish a little.

Richard Clarke argues that "it’s not really as much about reform as it is about relevance." Panetta will make sure the CIA is heard in the White House and "will defend his analysts and stand up for them, so they’ll feel free to tell the truth." He also argues that Panetta’s experience as an intelligence consumer, both at OMB and the White House, will help him to be effective.

Maybe. But both arguments have more to do with the standing of the CIA within the White House and its position in Washington’s bureaucratic turf wars than with the larger concern that the CIA should produce accurate and independent information, not what the White House or other policymakers want to hear, as was the case in the Bush administration, especially with people-pleaser George Tenet. I suspect Panetta’s lack of intelligence experience will make it difficult to impossible for him to know much about the quality of intelligence, and this shortcoming will trump these bureaucratic considerations.

The Obama transition process, which has been hailed by many in the media as the smoothest, most considered and thoughtful ever – and to some extent actually had been pretty smooth – has stumbled badly in the last several days. Perhaps it’s a matter of haste as Inauguration Day approaches, but the wounds are self-inflicted.

The Panetta announcement caused significant consternation, notably from California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who heads the Senate Intelligence Committee and apparently wasn’t even informed of the choice in advance, and West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller, outgoing Senate Intelligence Committee chairman. Feinstein seems to have been mollified, at least publicly, after a 20-minute meeting with Panetta, but I doubt very much if that’s the end of the story.

It was not only a lapse of courtesy not to inform Feinstein, but a fundamental lapse of elementary political common sense to keep in the dark a person so closely linked to intelligence issues. There’s a theory going around that DiFi was kept in the dark purposely, on the likelihood that if Team Obama had told her that Panetta was the choice, the response might have been “Are you out of your frickin’ mind?” (or something more pungent). If so, the decision was shortsighted at best.

To be sure, as White House chief of staff, Panetta kept a notably unruly Clinton White House more or less on track, which is evidence that he is a competent manager. He is not associated with the controversial use of “enhanced interrogation” techniques, or torture, the CIA was authorized to use during the Bush years, and he has explicitly criticized the use of torture. He will probably have the ear of the president. And as noted, as White House chief of staff he sat in on intelligence briefings.

On the other hand, as Amy Zegart, who teaches at UCLA and wrote the recent book, Spying Blind: The CIA, the FBI, and the Origins of 9/11, told me, this is a “very strange choice.” During 16 years in the House Leon Panetta never served on an intelligence or foreign affairs committee, and he has expressed no burning interest in intelligence issues. To reform a secrecy-obsessed agency like the CIA, one needs to know some deep secrets, to have insider information about certain ugly truths, failings, and weaknesses. Otherwise one will have little idea what questions to ask or where to begin, other than fiddling with organizational charts.

Separately, the flap over New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who withdrew from consideration as commerce secretary, suggests that the much admired Obama vetting process was notably weaker than advertised. The choice of Panetta to head the CIA suggests undue haste and perhaps even panic. It also suggests that President-elect Obama has little interest in or knowledge about intelligence and no desire to compensate for his lack thereof by seeking a knowledgeable spy chief. It’s a dangerous enough world that this could be genuinely tragic.

It looks to Amy Zegart as if Obama sought “to satisfy certain political constituencies at the risk of alienating intelligence professionals.” While there may be some latitude for error in the choice of commerce secretary, however, those margins are much narrower for CIA chief.

Of course, every incoming president has made mistakes during what is probably an unduly lengthy transition process, and Obama still looks to be operating above the norm in this regard. But this one looks like a mistake. Panetta could yet prove me wrong – he does seem competent and versatile – but I’m inclined to agree with those who suspect he won’t last a year.

I admit to mixed feelings. In my own best-case scenario, the U.S. adopts a significantly less aggressive foreign policy, the process of which includes abolishing the CIA and most of the military intelligence agencies in favor of a new, lean agency, freed of the baggage of the imperial past and deputed to develop accurate information that can help the U.S. stay out of unnecessary future foreign entanglements. Given that such a transformation is unlikely, I’m not sure how beneficial it will be to have a truly effective CIA serving the interests of empire.

As an American, however, I still believe it would be nice, however foolish the policies an Obama administration might pursue (hello, Afghan escalation), if the government at least had mildly accurate information to work with. With Panetta at the CIA, I’m doubtful that will be the case.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).