A thoughtful Washington friend familiar with the Intelligence Community offered a novel perspective on the biggest problem Leon Panetta may face once he’s confirmed as President Obama’s Director of Central Intelligence.
Others have commented on Panetta’s inexperience in the arcane business of Intelligence work. My friend, on the other hand, suggested that while the new Director may well possess the multitude of skills required effectively to perform a very difficult and complex job, he will also need vast “reserves” of “grit” which comes only from inner “strength and resilience.”
That may seem a little California “touchy-feely” – but it’s a perceptive comment. For an “outsider” like Panetta, abruptly plopped at the top of an enormous secret bureaucracy, never before having braved the national security labyrinth and its hidden Medusas, the biggest challenge may be essentially personal: The Director’s suite on the top floor of CIA Headquarters at Langley can be a very lonely place.
But what, you may ask, about Panetta’s exalted political and social status within the Beltway? He’s worked in Washington, in both Legislative and Executive branches, for forty years – longer than almost any other Cabinet-level official on the Obama team. And as a former White House Chief of Staff who now has the ear of the President, he could, if so inclined, become the Alan Greenspan of the new Administration – spending every spare moment in back-slapping camaraderie with other VIPs. When CIA Headquarters was built in the 1960s, Langley was literally in the woods, on the distant outskirts of Government; today, surrounding McLean, Virginia is a thriving, expensive suburb of 30,000, which many ambassadors, Members of Congress and Federal; executives call home. So Director Panetta would scarcely need to drive around the corner to hit the salon circuit.
But that corner can be a quantum leap from the high security isolation of CIA Headquarters where the Director will probably spend most of his day, overseeing a bureaucracy so vast, entrenched in every country of the world, engaged in so many varied human and technological activities, harboring so many conflicting organizational “cultures”, that if it were a private enterprise, its administrative challenges would rival those of the greatest multinational corporations.
Panetta will face these challenges with both the advantage – the fresh eye – and disadvantage – unfamiliarity – of the “outsider”.
He may benefit from having some seasoned professional, possibly in military uniform, as his “No. 2”, as Deputy Director of Central Intelligence. And he will be spared the bane of past Directors who were saddled with the thankless task of “coordinating” the numerous bickering departments and agencies of the Intelligence Community. That's now the unhappy burden of the so-called Intelligence “czar”, Admiral Dennis Blair.
What Panetta will not have at Langley, at least not at first, is a circle of trusted intimates. More about that in a moment.
First, let’s look at two real-life problems that may top the classified paper pile on the Director’s desk when Panetta takes up residence.
As usual, I must preface with the disclaimer that I’m not privy to any “secret” information – or even Old Boy gossip – on these subjects. They’re just off the top of my head as an interested layman.
If the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should again move from mutual mayhem to the bargaining table, Israel may press for the US to take an active hand in monitoring subterranean Hamas gun smuggling from Egypt into Gaza. This may require innovative technological nuances of an old headache throbbing in CIA brains since the Agency was tasked with counting the number of enemy trucks bumping along through the jungle along the Ho Chi Minh trail during the Vietnam War.
High tech monitoring of weapons traffic, great and small, is something at which the Agency – and, for that matter, Israeli Intelligence – excels. But when Panetta is briefed on such programs, he will have to rely on the expert judgment of men and women he has never before met. He will be the latest in a long line of Directors who began their careers as lawyers without scientific or technological training: Like Allen Dulles, who could barely master the buttons on his secure line rotary-dial desk phone; and William Colby, who thought of the array of costly CIA reconnaissance aircraft as “big planes” and “little planes”.
These were bright men, as Panetta most certainly is. But when a “generalist” Director is assured that any high tech device “will work”, with a high degree of accuracy, he has no basis, other than instinct and intuition, for questioning such assurances. The reality is that all machines fail at one time or another, and even if they do not, the cryptic tales they sometimes tell are subject to fallible human interpretation. Witness the faulty Weapons of Mass Destruction assessments of Saddam’s Iraq.
Let’s turn to a more “human” development of recent days - the media revelation that the CIA’s Chief of Station in Algiers had been recalled because of accusations of date rape by several Muslin women. Little details have emerged so far and it would be pointless to dwell on a leak to a single media source. But assuming that basic media information is correct – that the accused is a middle-aged Arabic linguist with considerable experience in the Middle East, either as diplomat or under diplomatic cover – imagine the questions that might plague a new Director.
Was the former Station Chief the victim of a conspiratorial set-up, a technique of female entrapment commonly used by the Soviets during the Cold War? And why was this embarrassment leaked – and by whom – just one day after the President assured the Muslim world that the United States is not an enemy? Life is full of odd coincidences, the hardball world of geo-politics is not.
There have been other press reports that, seven years ago, the ex-Station Chief self-published and publicized a novel about American liaison with the Algerian Government in fighting terrorism. If this is correct, why would this man be subsequently appointed CIA liaison with the Algerian Government - in fighting terrorism? Clandestine Service, after all, is still supposed to be largely clandestine. CIA officers sometimes write fiction while they’re on active service – the late Watergate burglar E. Howard Hunt is one unhappy example – but rarely do the plots of those novels mesh so closely with the sub rosa work they are doing abroad.
There are still other reports that the author of the novel was African-American. If true, might Panetta be told that this was a case of well-intended “affirmative action”? The CIA is no more immune from racism than other government departments, and it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that this situation could be exploited by some who would like to sabotage efforts to recruit more “people of color” for Intelligence work, especially during the Administration of America’s first African-American President.