The move to prosecute CIA officers for their conduct during the war on terrorism is threatening to throw President Obama’s national security team into turmoil – beginning with the possible resignation of CIA Director Leon Panetta.
Panetta engaged in a "profanity-laced screaming match" at the White House, according to ABC News.com, over a plan by Attorney General Eric Holder to launch an investigation over the treatment of detainees captured in Afghanistan and other countries. At issue is how far officers should have gone in their interrogation of such terrorists as the mastermind of the USS Cole bombing.
The threat to investigate the nation’s frontline spies comes after Panetta took on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi over her comments that she had never been brief regarding harsh interrogation techniques being used against Al-Qaida members. Panetta sided with his team and the written record in insisting that she had been briefed.
"You can expect a larger than normal turnover in the next year," a senior adviser to Obama on intelligence matters told ABCNews.com.
"It would be a shame if such as talented a Washington hand as Panetta were to leave after one year," said Richard Clarke, an ABC News consultant who worked on the national security team for the Clinton and Bush administrations and served as an adviser to President-elect Obama.
"It takes that long for any senior bureaucrat to begin to understand what needs to get done and how to do it, "said Clarke. "The CIA needs some stability."
Since 9/11, the CIA has had five directors or acting directors.
The White House said reports that Panetta had threatened to quit and that the White House was seeking a replacement were "inaccurate." But veteran officials of the spy agency said that Panetta looks ready to jump, a move that would be disastrous to U.S. intelligence. Panetta’s long experience as a legislator was invaluable. One of his chief tasks was to rebuild morale.
Another source of contention for Panetta was today's public release of an investigation by the CIA inspector general on the first two years of the agency's interrogation and detention program. The report has been delayed by an internal administration debate over how much of the report should be kept secret.
One CIA official said colleagues involved in the interrogation program were preparing for a far-reaching criminal investigation.
In addition to concerns about the CIA's reputation and its legal exposure, other White House insiders say Panetta has been frustrated by what he perceives to be less of a role than he was promised in the administration's intelligence structure. Panetta has reportedly chafed at reporting through the director of National Intelligence, Dennis Blair, according to the senior adviser who said Blair is equally unhappy with Panetta.
"Leon will be leaving," predicted a former top U.S. intelligence official, citing the conflict with Blair. The former official said Panetta is also "uncomfortable" with some of the operations being carried out by the CIA that he did not know about until he took the job.