January 7, 2009 The Baltimore Sun
President-elect Barack Obama has made an outstanding move in naming Leon E. Panetta to reform the beleaguered Central Intelligence Agency. Mr. Panetta is a savvy and sophisticated political operative who was a consumer of intelligence as chief of staff in the Clinton White House in the 1990s. He is a former director of the Office of Management and Budget who understands the need for cost-cutting in the intelligence community. And as a former member of the Iraq Study Group, Mr. Panetta knows how the Bush administration and the CIA corrupted the intelligence process to take the country into an unnecessary war seven years ago.
The argument against Mr. Panetta is that he is not an intelligence insider, but that is more virtue than vice. Intelligence insiders have done little over the past two decades to prevent intelligence failures. They failed to understand the decline of the Soviet Union because the process had been politicized by William J. Casey and his deputy, Robert M. Gates. They failed to provide strategic warning of the 9/11 attacks, and they permitted the corruption of key intelligence products in the run-up to the Iraq war. Intelligence insiders, moreover, were responsible for enthusiastically endorsing such CIA practices as torture and abuse, extraordinary renditions and secret prisons. Mr. Panetta was not a part of this history.
To function effectively, Mr. Panetta must understand certain truths about the CIA.
First, he would be moving into a political culture that has been dominated by the cover-up of key intelligence failures. No CIA officer was punished or even reprimanded for producing spurious intelligence products such as the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that was released shortly before the congressional vote in October 2002 to authorize force against Iraq. CIA leaders at the highest level drafted then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's address to the United Nations, which made the phony case for war to an international audience only six weeks before the invasion. And CIA officers continue to resist the efforts of Republican Rep. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan to expose the cover-up of the shoot-down of a private plane in Peru that led to the death of a missionary worker in South America.
Second, the 9/11 intelligence failure was not the result of institutional problems with information sharing; rather, it was the result of sloppiness and incompetence in the sharing of key information. More than 50 analysts and operatives from the CIA, the FBI and the National Security Agency had access to information that key al-Qaida operatives had entered the United States, but none of these individuals took the necessary action to pass the information along - even though there were well-defined mechanisms for doing so. Mr. Panetta must seek to re-establish the CIA's role in strategic analysis and create a well-managed and more disciplined cadre to ensure that information is being handled properly.
Finally, Mr. Panetta needs to understand that the creation of a director of national intelligence in the wake of the 9/11 intelligence failure has led to a more centralized system of intelligence that stifles creative thinking and runs the risk of more politicized intelligence. The director, moreover, lacks the bureaucratic clout to challenge the Pentagon's control of key intelligence agencies. But by naming a retired admiral with limited experience to be the next director, Mr. Obama may have decided to downgrade the position of the so-called intelligence czar.
After three uninspired selections in the field of international security (Mr. Gates as secretary of defense, Hillary Clinton as secretary of state and retired Marine Gen. James L. Jones as national security adviser), the naming of Mr. Panetta offers the promise of genuine change. But Mr. Panetta must touch base with key critics of the intelligence community - such as members of the 9/11 commission, key staff members of congressional oversight committees, and the CIA's own inspector general - who are in a position to offer outside-the-box thinking on what the CIA should be and what it should do.
Melvin A. Goodman, senior fellow at the Center for International Policy, is a 24-year veteran of the CIA's intelligence directorate and the author of "Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA." His e-mail is email@example.com.