That was my first thought when I heard that President Obama would appoint Leon Panetta as DCI - Director of Central Intelligence.
The general drawbacks of public life today are so starkly obvious – the invasion of privacy, muck-hoeing of petty peccadilloes, media excoriation – that one wonders why any sane person would accept a high position in Government.
Political junkies love to speculate about hidden motives and unseen agendas. If money, as a powerful Boss of the now-emasculated California Legislature once quipped, is the mother’s milk of politics, then cynicism is its pablum.
Cynics are certain that all politicians play a mental game of Personal Chess, always thinking three steps ahead of their current place on the career ladder.
So, to humor the cynics, the CIA Directorship could be a stepping-stone to – what?
Probably to nothing. As I brashly claim to be the first American Intelligence historian, I’ve accumulated far too much of the dull folk-lore of past DCIs. No Director – with the exception of the elder George Bush – has gone on to high elective office. Two DCIs have become Secretary of Defense, including the current incumbent, but given the military dilemmas of a cash-strapped Administration, that can hardly be considered a plum. Secretary of State? Mrs. Clinton is unlikely to abandon the excitement of Foggy Bottom any time soon. A prestigious Embassy? Again apart from the first Bush, who was sent to Beijing before that post had formal ambassadorial status, two Directors won ambassadorial positions, but more in appreciation for services rendered than in expectation of diplomatic brilliance.
Of course, I have no idea what Leon Panetta may have in the back of his mind, but I suspect the answer to why he took the appointment is simple and simply disappointing to political cynics: Because he believes he can do a challenging job well and thereby make his mark at a decisive moment of American history.
But why? What does Panetta feel he has to offer as a neophyte within the byzantine palace of the Intelligence Community?
All spy-fiction aficionados know that “asset” has a sinister meaning in espionage jargon. It’s bandied about to dehumanize secret agents who may be ruthlessly “used” and then casually discarded. That definition even shows up in the dictionary, but if falls below the more conventional meaning of “personal quality”.
Panetta, I believe, feels that he brings these “assets” of his own to CIA:
Judgment. Counsel. Vision.
The first two are connected in a somewhat disheartening way – disheartening, that is, for compulsive politicians.
“Judgment” is the most critical quality of a DCI. Not just mini-judgments on secret matters that might one day be exposed in embarrassing headlines. But greater judgments on high matters of Statecraft.
Theoretically, Intelligence is strictly detached from Policy. When Allen Dulles was DCI - and his brother was Secretary of State - he would politely deflect unwelcome questions about his foreign policy views with an innocuous, “Oh, that’s not my business”, bringing inward smiles to aides who knew that the Brothers Dulles met privately each evening to talk about what was going on in the world.
Intelligence analysis, in reality, often dictates Policy choices – as it did in the run-up to the Iraqi War - and controversial Intelligence estimates and assessments often require judgment calls by the Director: Any hope of fruitful direct dealings with more moderate elements of the Taliban? Is Chinese Naval aggressiveness prelude to military assertiveness by Beijing in other parts of the world? Can Terrorism be fought without intervention in “failed” anarchic states of Africa?