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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 3/28/09

PANETTA WATCH 7: JUDGMENT, COUNSEL, VISION (and DESTINY?)

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And if the President turns to the Director and asks, “Well, what do you think?” about a policy matter, a DCI of Panetta’s long experience and stature isn’t likely to use the Dulles gambit. He may influence foreign policy merely by having a seat at The Table – and being respected there as a man of superior Judgment.

One significant bureaucratic change since the Dulles era has seriously affected how the DCI may express that judgment. During the Cold War, the production of National Intelligence Estimates, which were supposed to represent the unified “best guesses” of all the US Intelligence agencies on critical present and near-future events, was coordinated within the CIA. After 9/11, that coordination was moved out of the Agency to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the so-called “czar” of the entire Intelligence Community, who ranks above the DCI, at least in the formal Washington pecking order. President Obama’s “czar”, retired Admiral Dennis Blair, now oversees the multi-agency Estimates process , and it’s his name that often makes headlines: Blair says drug cartels control parts of Mexico. Blair thinks the Taliban may be pacified, but US Intelligence in Afghanistan must be improved. Blair believes the Pakistani and Mexican Governments are not in danger of immediate collapse.

And what was Director Panetta doing last week? Only the readers of Indian and Pakistani newspapers were aware that he visited their countries recently. No press conference followed to indicate exactly what Panetta discussed with his counterparts and other Government officials in New Delhi and Islamabad.

Panetta did hold a press conference at Langley after a few weeks in office. That he already knew many of the journalists in attendance was not surprising for a congressional veteran and former White House Chief of Staff, which made it incumbent on him to apologetically caution the newsmen that now being in a more “sensitive” position, he had to be “careful” about what questions he answered - though “all of you are smart enough to know that”.

Most questions were about the hot-button issue of the day – “extraordinary rendition” of suspected terrorists, their incarceration and “enhanced” interrogation. Panetta cut off more far-ranging inquiries – about the use of drones on the Pakistani-Afghan border and the nuclear adventurism of North Korea –by brief appeal to the constraints of classified, sensitive information.

It’s clear that Panetta does not intend to be a headline-maker as DCI. He will leave public pronouncements to Admiral Blair, with whom, Panetta insists, he is developing a good working relationship.

Still, he fully intends to play the role of wise Counsellor – just in the privacy of the Oval Office. But the CIA will continue to produce the President’s Daily Bulletin, its traditional daily summary of world events, as well as a new Economic Intelligence Brief detailing the political impact of the world financial crisis in nations around the globe.

Thus the CIA’s best Intelligence will be presented to Obama each morning, and doubtless the President’s reception of the “message”, of that presentation, will inevitably be influenced by the “medium” – Panetta as supreme spoke-person for his Agency. That is the essence of Panetta’s “asset” as Counsel – his personal relationship with the Commander in Chief who first offered him the job saying that, above all, he wanted a Director whom he could trust to offer independent, honest judgment.

And finally the “Vision thing”.

For the DCI, Vision can mean many things – for example, forseeing how Intelligence priorities will be affected by the unsettling transition from National to Global Security that I hypothesized a few weeks ago. But perhaps most important for a Director is his Vision of how to lead his Agency to perfect its vast capabilities.

These are not questions that interest many people outside the Intelligence Community. At his press conference, Panetta paid homage to the CIA’s dedication and the “highest level of professionalism that I’ve seen” during his 40 years in Government. He talked about a range of personnel issues – how to hire the best people from among 100,000 applicants; how to expand ethnic diversity and foreign language training; the Agency’s surprisingly low rate of attrition; the need to move away from the Bush Administration’s passion for “private sector” outside contractors and to move many functions back “in house”. All the natural concern of a man who had once headed the Office of Management and Budget. He also talked in particular about improving Agency relations with the Congress, natural again for one the best and brightest veterans of the House of Representatives.

None of this interested the journalists present. But it surely was of interest to the thousands of Agency personnel who at first didn’t quite know what to make of this “outsider” but hoped, for starters, that he would make a personal “investment” in the Agency he now heads.

“The work is intense”, Panetta told the press, “it’s obviously very important and very consuming – more so than any other operation I’ve been involved with – and there are very long days. But I feel very good about the team effort that we have here.”

It was an excellent start for a man who was “excited” about “taking on” an “interesting challenge” and manifold responsibilities in a “fascinating and challenging world”.

And that, in short, is why Leon Panetta wanted the job.

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Smith is an historian and public policy consultant.

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