As a proposed CIA director, Leon E. Panetta has three strikes against him.
First, as a former member of Congress and former chief of staff to Bill Clinton, Panetta is a politician.
Second, he knows little about intelligence beyond having received CIA briefings in the Clinton White House.
Third, based on his previous statements, his nomination would send a strong message to CIA operatives that if they take risks to protect the country, they may suffer consequences.
Ever since the Iraq war, the media and Democratic critics have been telling us that the Bush administration politicized intelligence. When Dick Cheney went to CIA headquarters to ask questions of analysts, that was supposed to be evidence he was pressuring the CIA to agree with what every Iraqi general believed: that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.
In fact, as John McLaughlin, then deputy director of Central Intelligence, told me for my book “The CIA at War: Inside the Secret Campaign Against Terror,” the professionals don’t interpret honest, persistent questioning as pressure. “We’re not here on Mount Olympus delivering revealed wisdom,” McLaughlin said. “The truth is elusive. The questioning is normal interchange. There was no spinning of intelligence.”
Going out to CIA headquarters to ask questions is one thing. Having a political operative who is close to the president in charge of the CIA is another.
To be sure, outsiders with no intelligence experience have run the CIA.
Some, like William Webster, George H.W. Bush, and John McCone, have been successful. Others, like John Deutch and Adm. Stansfield Turner, have been disasters. But since 9/11, intelligence has become far more complex and its direct connection to our safety far too important to trust it to someone who may need a year to learn the business.
Panetta condemned coercive interrogation techniques that saved lives and that key members of Congress and the Justice Department approved. His appointment will signify to CIA officers it is better to sit in their offices and collect paychecks than to take risks.
President-elect Barack Obama previously sent that message by deciding not to nominate John Brennan as CIA director because he had been an agency official when coercive techniques were used. Those same kinds of messages led to the risk-averse atmosphere generated under President Clinton, contributing to the CIA’s inability to uncover the 9/11 plot.
Having excluded from consideration anyone who was with the agency when coercive techniques were used, Obama has limited himself to choosing a CIA chief with no current intelligence experience.
Yet, “In a post 9/11 world, intelligence experience would seem to be a prerequisite for the job of CIA director,” Sen. Christopher S. Bond of Missouri, the top ranking Republican on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, has said.
As CIA director, Gen. Michael Hayden has improved agency morale and, by helping to roll up plots, has contributed to the Bush administration’s success in keeping the country safe for more than seven years.
“I have seen first hand how hard the man works, and it is mind-boggling,” Hayden’s brother Harry Hayden tells me. “He has been working 24/7. He has also given me a glimpse of how hard the people under him work and how much they love our country and respect our laws and Constitution.”
Like Hayden, Panetta, as director of the Office of Management and Budget, has a reputation as a good manager. As Robert L. Grenier, who headed the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, tells me, if Panetta “makes it clear he will stand up to unfair criticism and defend his troops, he will win them over, and his closeness to Obama could be seen as a plus.”
But given that the CIA is our first line of defense against another terrorist attack, such speculation is not enough to qualify Panetta to lead the agency. Obama’s choice of Panetta stands in contrast to nearly all his other proposed appointments to date, including Dennis Blair to be director of National Intelligence. As seen by Democrats and Republicans alike, the candidates have had strong credentials for their jobs.
By choosing as CIA chief a man with three strikes against him, Obama is rolling the dice with our safety when America is in a war for its survival.
Ronald Kessler is chief Washington correspondent of Newsmax.com. View his previous reports and get his dispatches sent to you free via
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