Former White House chief of staff Leon Panetta will face steep challenges if his nomination as CIA director, which was leaked on Monday, is formally announced.
For starters, he will face a tough confirmation hearing. The incoming chairman of the Senate select intelligence committee, which must vote on his nomination, showed her anger on Monday by issuing a statement complaining that she had been blindsided by the appointment.
“My position has consistently been that I believe the Agency is best served by having an intelligence professional in charge at this time,” said Sen. Diane Feinstein of California.
Panetta’s only experience with the intelligence community has been as a consumer of finished intelligence products while serving as Bill Clinton’s White House chief of staff, so her comment was a clear shot across his bow.
If confirmed, Panetta must then face off with a CIA bureaucracy that has adapted reluctantly (and some argue, inadequately) to the new threats facing America since the end of the Cold War.
“I worry that he will spend a prodigious amount of time just trying to figure out where the bathroom is in the place,” said Frank Gaffney, president of the Center for Security Policy.
The CIA is full of “labyrinthine institutions,” Gaffney told Newsmax. “I think you really need somebody who has some history at the very least with the business of intelligence.”
Gaffney said he was worried that someone who would spend a “considerable amount” of his time at the Agency just learning the ropes “almost certainly will be manipulated and probably neutralized by the career professionals. That assuredly will not result in reforms of the kind Pete Hoekstra and others believe are necessary.”
Gaffney was referring to the former chairman of the House intelligence committee, Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., who laid out for Newsmax last month his views of how the CIA needed to be reformed.
[Editor's Note: See "Hoekstra: Obama Should Fire CIA Chief Hayden."]
But being an outsider to the arcane and complex world of secret intelligence also could be an asset, says Edward N. Luttwak, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC.
“Panetta is a political figure,” Luttwak told Newsmax. “The people mentioned so far [as possible CIA directors] were all CIA officials. That was not reassuring. I don’t know if Leon Panetta is reassuring, but a CIA person would have been unfortunate, because everyone in Washington knows the CIA needs major change.”
When compared to the U.S. military, or to the corps of professional Foreign Service officers who work in U.S. diplomatic outposts around the world, the CIA’s cadre of clandestine operations officers are “sadly lacking in elementary skills, such as languages,” Luttwak said.
“There’s a long history of the CIA rejecting, turning down the very applicants who are most suitable, on the grounds they are hard to clear. The enterprising young American who has traveled all around the world as a backpacker, shows up, and they turn him away, because it’s too difficult to investigate all the places he’s been. They go for the Utah high school or college graduate, who has no sophistication.”
When the United States faced off with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, the intelligence game could be waged primarily with technical means, so the ability to recruit spies was less important than it is today.
The U.S. intelligence community developed satellites and other “national technical means” of extraordinary sophistication that could detect the deployment of nuclear missiles to Cuba in 1962, or the development of a new generation of Soviet nuclear submarine in the 1980s.
“The current threat cannot be photographed, and cannot be intercepted. So you need human intelligence,” Luttwak pointed out. “And that is the one thing the CIA most sorely lacks.”
When the United States decided to drive Iraq out of Kuwait during the first Gulf war in 1991, we didn’t have a single human spy in Saddam Hussein’s regime, he said.
The CIA has been similarly unable to recruit human sources inside Iran, despite a desperate need to understand what is happening in closed door meetings among Iran’s ruling ayatollahs, to better understand the intentions of Iran’s nuclear development programs.
“The CIA’s awful inadequacy was masked during the Cold War years because the target did not require human intelligence,” Luttwak said.
“Today, we do need it, and we can see how ineffective they are. Apparently, any young enthusiast from California can make his way to Pakistan and eventually penetrate – get invited into al-Qaida. But the CIA cannot do it. No doubt, because it would interfere with leave arrangements, spousal employment, PTA engagements, the golf game, whatever. There’s a huge competence gap.”
A former operations officer using the pseudonym Ishmael Jones, who says he worked for several years in the Persian Gulf region under non-official cover, trolling for spies, describes the risk adverse culture of the CIA in a new memoir.
To lull his supervisors back in Washington that his visits to the region “posed no risk,” Jones would lard his reports with “boring details” about everything but the potential spies he hoped to recruit, he writes in “The Human Factor.”
For many years in the 1990s, there was a “stand-down” rule against targeting Iranian weapons procurement and terrorist operations, he writes. Jones says he had to devise clever “work-arounds” in order to recruit persons of other nationalities, in particular, Pakistanis, who could provide details of what the Iranians were doing.
Both Porter Goss and Gen. Mike Hayden tried to change the culture of the clandestine service during the Bush years, in particular by recruiting large numbers of young officers into the Agency.
“Hayden takes pride in what CIA has accomplished since he has been there,” a senior intelligence official told Newsmax.
“Morale is higher than it has been in years. There is a clear focus on the mission, and there have been some notable successes. Playing offense against terrorists and countering weapons proliferation are among those successes. Those efforts have saved lives and helped keep the country safe,” he added.
If the decision to replace Hayden has been made – and the senior intelligence official was still waiting for confirmation before commenting – then Hayden would leave with his head high.
“Mike will leave the place in far better shape than he found it. That’s for sure,” the official said.
While it’s too early to have any idea of what Leon Panetta might try to do at the CIA, Luttwak believes he has the potential to be the “agent of change” that Rep. Hoekstra and others have been seeking.
It’s like General Motors, Luttwak said.
“General Motors will never be saved by people who are products of the GM culture. Similarly, this guy has a different background. There’s nothing that says he will reform anything. But certainly, to have appointed a long-term CIA veteran, the product of the very product that needs to be changed, was alarming,” Luttwak said.
Panetta’s most useful skills at CIA could well be his years as a tough political operative, Luttwak argued.
“Whenever anybody arrived at the CIA and tried to change anything at the operational side, the people who were unable to operate overseas turned out to be very good at getting stories into the press” that accused the new director of damaging the Agency.
Such orchestrated leaks were the downfall of Porter Goss, who faced an outright rebellion when he took over the Agency in November 2004 that I described in detail in “Shadow Warriors: The Untold Story of Traitors, Saboteurs, and the Party of Surrender.”
“So they were not good overseas, but they were very good with the Washington Post and successfully prevented reform by those means. So Panetta’s political skills are highly relevant here,” Luttwak said.
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