Panetta’s CIA Nomination Part of Broader Obama Plan

By Joseph Fitsanakis | intelNews | 01.06.2009
CIA Floor Mural
AMERICA’S LARGEST NEWSPAPERS DESCRIBE US President Elect Barack Obama’s choice of Leon E. Panetta as CIA’s next Director as “a surpris[ing] and unusual choice” that has “stunned the national intelligence community“. These descriptions are not far from the truth. More importantly, however, the selection of the former Bill Clinton aide to head the nation’s most powerful intelligence agency reveals the continuing rift between the incoming Democratic Administration and many conservative hawks at the CIA. The latter openly warned the President Elect last month that he “may have difficulty finding a candidate who can be embraced by both veteran officials at the agency and the left flank of the Democratic Party”.

Obama’s selection of Leon Panetta, an established bureaucrat with little prior contact with CIA, does not exactly confirm the worst fears in the Agency’s high echelons. Panetta, whose parents were born in poverty in southern Italy, and who speaks fluent Italian, is firmly rooted in the moderate center of the Democratic Party. Intellectually, however, his positions are often informed by the progressive wing of the Democratic Party –most notably in the case of torture, of which Panetta is a strong opponent.

A BUREAUCRAT OUTSIDER

That Panetta has no direct intelligence background is undisputed. If anything, it seems that during his long legislative career he tried to stay clear of any direct involvement with the nation’s intelligence agencies. Characteristically, he never showed an interest in joining the House Intelligence Committee during his 16 consecutive years as a US Representative. It is true that as Director of the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, from 1993 to 1994, he supervised the entire budget of the US intelligence community on behalf of US President Bill Clinton. There is indeed something to be said about routine bureaucratic access to what is arguably the US intelligence services’ biggest secret –namely funding. On the other hand, it is certainly accurate to state that Panetta has “no institutional memory of the [CIA] and no hands-on experience with its thorniest challenges, including the collection of human intelligence overseas”.

Nevertheless, it would be equally accurate to suggest that Panetta has dealt with US intelligence policy issues, not only as President Clinton’s former Chief of Staff (with access to the President’s daily briefings on intelligence and CIA covert activities), but also in his position as member of the Iraq Study Group. The ISG was a ten-person bipartisan panel tasked in 2006 by Congress with assessing the grave situation in Iraq and making numerous policy recommendations, many of which concerned the US intelligence community’s role in the whole affair.

OBAMA’S AIM

Essentially, however, Barack Obama selected Leon Panetta to head the CIA precisely because he has had little contact with it in the past. The Washington Post actually quotes “an official close to the selection process” who says “Obama [specifically] sought an independent outside figure to lead the CIA”. Ostensibly, his outside status renders Panetta no different from John McCone or even George H. Bush, two complete outsiders selected to head the CIA in the 1960s and 1970s respectively. Operationally, it places him in a position of administrative independence and enables him to deal with CIA’s problems without acting as an emissary of one of the Agency’s numerous cliques (clandestine service v. analysts, electronic v. human intelligence advocates, former Soviet bureau v. the Arabists, etc).

Moreover, the President Elect will certainly task Leon Panetta with demilitarizing the CIA –that is, reaffirming the Agency operational independence from the Pentagon. Since 9/11, and with the full support of the White House, DoD priorities have tended to increasingly dominate the CIA’s range of missions. This task is part of a broader intention by the Obama Administration to demilitarize and re-civilianize, not only the nation’s primary intelligence organizations (CIA, NSA, NRO), but also the State Department. The choice of Hillary Clinton to head the latter has indeed been interpreted as a possible attempt by Barack Obama “to elevate the State Department so it isn’t dominated by the Defense Department and the security apparatus” as it has been during the George W. Bush Presidency.

Perhaps more importantly, Panetta’s experience in government policy and regulation is seen as a solid basis upon which to reestablish the severely disrupted relationship between the CIA and the democratically elected representatives of the American people. The stringent oversight that Congress is constitutionally required to exercise upon the intelligence community has been systematically subverted by successive US Administrations ever since the mid-1970s, and was effectively terminated –often with the conscious participation of Democratic Congressional leaders– following 9/11. Panetta’s principled views on torture, which he has publicly expressed in the past, are hopeful indicators of his strict regulatory approach. In an interview last January, he condemned the belief that “we can abuse captives in certain select circumstances and still be true to our values” as “a false compromise”. He went on to state “[we] either believe in the dignity of the individual [and] the rule of law [...] or we don’t. There is no middle ground [...]. We cannot and we must not use torture under any circumstances”.

THE RIFT CONTINUES

Long-term goals aside, it is clear that Barack Obama’s selection of Leon Panetta will be seen as a challenge by conservatives at the CIA. Thus the “anxiety in the ranks of the agency’s clandestine service”, as The New York Times recently put it, is expected to continue. The President Elect has effectively rejected calls by the CIA’s Congressional messengers to “keep the country’s current national intelligence director and CIA chief in place for some time to ensure continuity in US intelligence programs”. He has even gone so far as to keep the CIA’s few Democratic Congressional friends, such as Dianne Feinstein, completely out of the decision-making process. Instead, he has chosen to side with isolated voices within the CIA, such as that of Art Brown, who headed the Asia division of the Agency’s Clandestine Service from 2003 to 2005, who have called for a radical shake-up of the CIA’s “cocoon of secrecy that breeds distrust of outsiders”, its culture of nepotism and its “ladder-climbing” ethos.

The question is, how will the CIA react to all this challenge? Already the Agency has shown signs of refusing to cooperate with the incoming Administration. Last month, US Attorney General Michael Mukasey told journalists that the NSA and CIA had not granted the Obama transition team access to classified material containing “the legal rationale of the NSA’s warrantless spying program and the CIA’s detention and interrogation policies, among other intelligence initiatives”. The CIA is correctly noted as “notoriously unwelcoming to previous directors perceived as outsiders”. Will the Agency resist outside efforts to transform its organizational culture and modus operandi? Its decision will be of immense significance to the future of American democracy.

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6 Responses to Panetta’s CIA Nomination Part of Broader Obama Plan

  1. Gary Lytle says:

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