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?
True, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency can’t exactly say that sort of thing in public, but you’d think that Mr. Panetta — the ultimate Washington insider — knows how the game is played. Leaks can be countered with more leaks, providing the agency’s own version of events. Better yet, the DCI could call the bluff of his opponents at the ACLU and the White House by demanding the release of documents which affirm the effectiveness of CIA interrogations — and the limited use of so-called “torture techniques.” (Note: the CIA Inspector General’s report was released after this was written and can be found here.)
Instead, Leon Panetta became obsessed with a non-scandal, losing valuable opportunities to defend his agency and its personnel. One retired CIA official I spoke with referred to him as “another Colby,” — a reference to William Colby, the DCI who cooperated with the Church and Pike Committees that probed agency abuses in the 1970s. To this day, many CIA employees feel that Colby went too far in his cooperation, opening the door for increased congressional oversight that gutted the agency’s covert operations directorate.
The bitter “Colby” reference is a sure sign that morale at Langley is plummeting. And with good reason. The looming special counsel inquiry will make a skittish organization even more risk averse. Talented personnel will continue to leave the agency, believing (correctly) that the CIA will leave them twisting in the wind when the going gets tough.
It’s a trend that is sadly familiar. Following previous scandals in the 70s and 80s, thousands of skilled analysts and operations specialists left Langley for greener pastures, leaving behind the hacks and politicians who presided over such intelligence debacles as 9-11.
Strong leadership could go a long way in taking on the agency’s critics and preventing another mass exodus from the agency. But sadly, Mr. Panetta is not that type of leader. Without any meaningful intelligence experience (except as a consumer) the former Democratic congressman and White House chief of staff was asked to lead the CIA during a time of difficult transition under the new director of national intelligence construct.
To his credit, Panetta has fought some battles for his agency. ABC News reports the DCI erupted into a tirade during a White House meeting that apparently laid out plans for Holder’s investigation. Sources tell ABC that Panetta also threatened to resign, although a CIA spokesman denies those claims.
Meanwhile, the White House is said to be screening possible replacements, suggesting that Panetta’s departure is all but inevitable. Under normal circumstances, the removal of an ineffectual CIA director would be welcome news. But these are extraordinary times; American troops are fighting two wars and the threat from global terrorists remains critical. At a time when the agency needs an exceptional hand on the tiller, Mr. Panetta has only one thing going for him: his potential replacement are likely to be even worse, setting the stage for more bloodletting — and diminished capabilities — at Langley.