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Why Leon Panetta May Be the Right Man for CIA Chief

Given the extent to which President-elect Barack Obama previously positioned himself on the left wing of the Democratic Party, his appointments in the areas of national security and defense have been remarkable in the degree to which the worst fears of conservatives have not come to pass. Robert Gates as secretary of defense would have been a dream pick for a McCain administration and former commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. James Jones is someone I wish President Bush had chosen as his wartime national security adviser. The immediate howls of protest from liberal Senate Intelligence Committee members and chairmen that greeted Leon Panetta’s nomination to head the CIA are genuine in their rage. For many reasons, conservatives and advocates of a reinvigorated, reinvented, depoliticized CIA may end up being quite happy with the tenure of Director Panetta.

While Panetta is himself a partisan Democrat who on paper has had no direct experience with intelligence matters, he brings to the table some exceptional qualifications:

  • As a former director of OMB, Panetta had the very rare “super-user” access at OMB that permitted him to review line item requests of the super-secret “black budget” of the entire intelligence community (IC). Few DCIs in the history of the CIA began the job with the perspective of funding, internal budgeting, and program expenditure in intelligence community matters of Leon Panetta.
  • As the former White House chief of staff, Panetta was often present for the president’s daily brief (now the responsibility of the DNI, then of the CIA). While Panetta may not know the best practice in an intel analytical process, he has more than enough experience to recognize a shoddy intelligence product and to demand better performance.

  • With his long experience in the legislative and executive branches, Panetta has clout of his own and is unlikely to be intimidated or impressed by Senate and House committees eager to witch hunt, scapegoat, or neuter the CIA clandestine service, which is risk-averse enough as it is. Panetta would be the first CIA director who was also a political heavyweight since William Casey.
  • As a former White House chief of staff and member of the Iraq Study Group, Panetta has already been entrusted with the nation’s most sensitive secrets. He’s aware of the strengths, weaknesses, and blind spots of the IC and his patriotism is beyond reproach. Nor does he need the job. Panetta isn’t running for president in 2016 or cashing in like so many others.

The truth is that the CIA has been in an existential crisis since at least 1991 that has waxed and waned, but it never recovered the competence in clandestinity or the esprit de corps it enjoyed in its glory years under Allen Dulles or the brief revival ushered in by William Casey and Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. The CIA now bleeds talent to better-paying private military companies like CACI or Blackwater and engages in domestic political intrigue and gross waste like any other government agency. Post-9/11 “intelligence reforms” badly battered the CIA as an institution without building up its original core mission of HUMINT collection and strategic influence operations to a robust and dynamic capacity.

The lion’s share of the IC budget and agencies is under the control of the Department of Defense and these agencies from the NSA to the DIA do a fine job, but the United States needs a world-class civilian intelligence agency that conducts espionage, covert operations, and analysis from a strategic perspective and in domains or environments where military personnel are simply poorly suited, implausibly deniable, or not competent. The CIA needs to be removed from partisan maneuvering at home and focused abroad where existing and emerging threats to national security can be found.

Will Leon Panetta be able to reform and reinvigorate the CIA? Will the Obama administration permit him to do so? These are questions to which we have no answers, but he is the first nominee to head the CIA in a long time with the potential to do so. Which is why so many veterans of the IC, despite wide political differences, are hopeful and why aging “Watergate babies” in the Democratic caucus are gritting their teeth.