When Leon Panetta took over the CIA earlier this year, he was described (in some circles) as the wrong man for the wrong job at the wrong time.
Seven months later, that assessment is proving eerily prescient. As the agency prepares for a politically-charged investigation of its interrogation practices, Mr. Panetta’s leadership is noticeably lacking. Indeed, there is growing evidence that the director’s recent actions have made a bad situation worse.
We refer to the manufactured “scandal” surrounding the agency’s plans to enlist contractors in the hunt for high-value terror targets. That proposal — which involved the controversial security firm Blackwater — was discussed on several occasions, but never reached the operational stage. Three previous CIA directors declined to brief the proposal to Congress, largely because there was nothing to it.
But that didn’t stop Mr. Panetta from rushing to Capitol Hill when he learned of the project, offering an emergency briefing to members of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees. Congressional Democrats immediately pounced on Panetta’s admission, saying it supported claims (by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi) that the spy agency had repeatedly lied to lawmakers.
Sources now suggest that Mr. Panetta regrets his actions. Columnist Joseph Finder, who writes for the Daily Beast, reported last week that the CIA director spoke with his predecessors after he reported the program’s existence to members of Congress. George Tenet, Porter Goss, and Michael Hayden were all aware of the program, but they elected not to inform Congress because it never evolved past the “PowerPoint” stage.
My own contacts within the intelligence community paint a similar picture. There were a few meetings (along with that slide presentation), but the CIA made no effort to make the program operational. Indeed, the planned involvement of contractor personnel made agency personnel nervous, one reason the project never moved past the discussion stage.
In other words, Leon Panetta created an unnecessary scandal at the very moment his agency is facing increased scrutiny. According to the Washington Post, Attorney General Eric Holder will appoint a special prosecutor to examine allegations that CIA officers and contractors violated anti-torture laws during interrogations of terror suspects.
Mr. Holder’s reported decision is anything but a surprise. Literally from the day they took office, members of the Obama administration have been weighing a probe into CIA practices under President George W. Bush. The recent leaks about the agency’s potential partnership with Blackwater — and claims of interrogation abuse — were little more than groundwork for Eric Holder’s pending announcement.
To counter the gathering tempest, the CIA needs its own advocate, someone who can factually counter allegations of widespread misconduct. The fact is, Mr. Holder’s special counsel will investigate only a dozen cases of reported abuse out of literally thousands of interrogations conducted by CIA specialists and contract personnel. Has anyone at Langley asked if such an inquiry represents a legitimate use of government resources? Or is it simply a taxpayer-funded witch hunt, aimed at placating the ultra-liberal wing of President Obama’s party?