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PANETTA COMPLEX: A Liberal Down The Rabbit Hole

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Following the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham sympathetically told her friend Allen Dulles, the CIA Director fired by President Kennedy after the disaster, that she knew he must be feeling terribly "unappreciated".

Leon Panetta, as Dulles' latest successor, must know that feeling well.

Being a secret service, Panetta's Central Intelligence Agency generally attracts public notice only when something has gone wrong and newsworthy expose or scandal ensues. When that happens, two vocal groups rush to excoriate the man in charge: Ideologues of the Left and Ideologues of the Right.

No matter that the events now making headlines were none of Panetta's doing, that they transpired under the earlier Administration of the Other Party. In trying to weather the storm, to maintain the morale and integrity of the vital government institution he heads, Panetta has received no credit, no thanks, and precious little support.

Panetta has been in politics and government for nearly fifty years. He is the compleat Washington "insider". But at CIA, he finds himself in a strange Wonderland, full of Mad Hatters, not just those who work tirelessly within the secure warren, but also those shouting angrily down the rabbit hole.

For the experienced politician who has seen everything else, what makes this job different from all other jobs in the current Administration?

Something that happened long ago, when Panetta was still among that now-extinct species of liberal Republicans: In 1968, the Democratic Party was torn apart by violent disagreement over the Vietnam War. One consequence was the complete disintegration of the Democratic foreign policy Establishment of the Truman and Kennedy Administrations -- an Establishment, of idealistic realists who understood the significance of Secret Intelligence.

Of course, the Obama Administration is full of brilliant men and women, some too young to remember the Cold War, who would insist that the President has formed a new national security team for a new century, with impressive academic and political credentials.

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But where is the supporting Democratic Establishment that once supplied the Kennans, Achesons, Bundys, Marshalls, Harrimans, Cliffords and countless others who helped this country survive the danger of an apocalyptic World War III? An Establishment to which Panetta, under attack from Left and Right, might turn for political back-up?

Nowhere to be found. For the first liberal Democratic CIA Director in the Agency's history, there seems to be no refuge in Wonderland.
But there could be.

On the White House website, there is a listing for an obscure institution called the President's Intelligence Advisory Board, which "consists of not more than 16 members appointed by the President from among individuals who are not employed by the Federal Government. Members are distinguished citizens selected from the national security, political, academic, and private sectors. The Board is a nonpartisan body, independent of the Intelligence Community, free from day-to-day management or operational responsibilities, and with full access to the complete range of intelligence-related information".

But there is no list of the current members of the Board because those appointed by President Bush resigned and, so far as I'm aware, President Obama has not appointed replacements.

Understandably, the President has had lots of other things on his mind and appointments to this Board are a very low priority. But I suspect there's another problem:

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The White House doesn't know where to look.

Wanted: "Distinguished" liberal Democrats and moderate Republicans outside Government who are not rabid ideologues, who know something about Intelligence and national security, and who represent diverse and powerful institutions within American society, the kinds of people to whom an avowedly liberal CIA Director might turn for advice and counsel and support when the chips are down. As my teenaged daughter would say: "Yeah, right."

As an historian, I have to wonder: Would it help to look backward?

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Smith is a diplomatic historian and public policy consultant. After serving briefly as a junior Intelligence officer during the Cold War, in 1972, with the late Arthur Schlesinger Jr. as mentor, he wrote the first history of the OSS, the World War (more...)

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A very compelling insight but, your historic viewp... by Richard Lee on Tuesday, Sep 1, 2009 at 3:15:54 PM
Jeez! Obama can't find anyone with expertise in in... by Bryan Emmel on Wednesday, Sep 2, 2009 at 4:01:25 AM