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PANETTA TO CIA: A "BRILLIANT" CHOICE?

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For the third time in three decades, the appointment of a Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) has presented a scylla and charybdis dilemma to a Democratic President.

In 1977, President Carter nominated former Kennedy speech-writer and intellectual alter ego Theodore Sorensen for the post; the nomination was withdrawn before a Senate vote that would have ended in defeat; many Senators felt Sorensen wasn't qualified for the job, and some conservatives undoubtedly believed he was too "liberal".

Twenty years later, President Clinton nominated his National Security Advisor (and former Carter State Department policy planner) Anthony Lake to be DCI. Again, the nomination had to be withdrawn.  Again there were rumors of strong opposition from Republican Senators, allegedly because Lake had opposed a covert operation to overthrow Saddam Hussein by CIA-engineered coup d'etat.  Lake was also the target of a scurrilous neo-conservative whispering campaign that smacked of Cold War McCarthyism.

This week, President-elect Obama has let it be known that he will appoint former Clinton White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta to head the CIA.  This after Democratic "progressives" were up in arms over the earlier rumor that Obama might select the CIA veteran who had founded the National Counterterrorism Center during the Bush Administration.

Panetta is not likely to arouse the opposition that met Sorensen and Lake.  Well-respected on Capitol Hill, he will probably win Senate confirmation. 

But will he then ultimately suffer the fate of many of the eighteen DCIs who came before him, ending his career in strident political controversy? Or will he prove to be what one admirer called a "brilliant selection" by the incoming President?

A personal note as preface: If Panetta becomes DCI, he would be the sixth man to hold that post whom I've met perfunctorily over the years - after Allen Dulles, John McCone, Richard Helms, William Colby, and James Woolsey.  As an historian, I consider myself something of a "DCI watcher".  Just as many of my colleagues, notably including my historical mentor, the late Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., have been astute observers of the Presidency, I've kept a close eye on CIA Directors ever since I began writing a biography of the legendary Allen Dulles which morphed into Peter Grose's book, GENTLEMAN SPY.

My past contacts with Panetta have been very perfunctory indeed, no more than a handshake at a few political functions when he served as a Member of Congress, representing the California coastal district in which I live.  The truth is, he doesn't know me from adam.

Only once did we come close to what might have been a nodding acquaintance. In 1989, while I was teaching national security courses at the Monterey Institute for International Studies, and Panetta was the Congressman from Monterey, I launched an "Institute for the Study of Intelligence Service", with a star-studded Advisory  Board of Kennedy New Frontier luminaries and a working group of well-known free-lance writers on American Intelligence - Jim Bamford, Tom Powers, David Kahn, John Prados, Jeffrey Richelson, Michael Beschloss, Steve Schlesinger and Loch Johnson .  We met occasionally in Washington for off-the-record discussions. One such meeting was arranged with the then-Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and ex-DCI Bill Colby and I sent Panetta an invitation to join us. He expressed a strong interest, but for some reason I can no longer recall, he wasn't able to attend.

That was  three years before Bill Clinton was elected President.  Panetta then chaired the House Budget Committee and had introduced a bill enabling the General Accounting, under proper security safeguards, to "audit the CIA" in the hope of  preventing another disastrous brouhaha like the Iran-Contra scandal, then the talk of the nation.  At the time, Congressman Panetta commented to the media that a "CIA Director bent on breaking the law could probably do so - but this law is going to make it a lot tougher..." His bill did not pass.

Then came the Clinton Administration and Panetta's rise to the limelight as Budget Director and White House Chief of Staff. Widely respected in Washington during those years, Panetta entirely avoided any taint from the wasteful Republican vendetta that exposed the President's personal peccadilloes to a gaping electorate.  He also gained invaluable experience as a "consumer" of Intelligence at the highest levels of executive decision-making. That experience will no doubt be trumpeted in Senate hearings as justifying his appointment, together with his long-standing commitment to increased oversight to block the kinds of CIA excesses of the post-9/11 era which have become knee-jerk issues for many liberal Democrats.

Now I must play the perpetual contrarian: I don't think that those are the most compelling justifications for Panetta's appointment.  If Panetta does indeed prove to be a "brilliant" choice, it may not be for the reasons that were probably foremost in the mind of the President-elect. 

"Oversight", in general, is not a primary function of a CIA Director.  "Abuses" and "excesses" in Intelligence work ought to be forestalled, and any DCI of integrity ought to take action if such transgressions are brought to his attention - as did Colby, when he publicly exposed the Crown Jewels deep dark secrets of past assassination plots and illegal domestic surveillance.  But there are plenty of people inside and outside the Agency - the CIA Inspector General, the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, the President's Intelligence Advisory Board and the former Intelligence Oversight Board of the Carter years - to call a halt to abuses when they appear. 

A far more important, and somewhat conflicting responsibility of an effective DCI is to encourage lawful risk-taking in both covert and clandestine operations and intelligence analysis.  Any 60 year-old bureaucracy develops hardening of the arteries and a Cover-Your-Ass compulsion which runs counter to the Intelligence excellence demanded by America's role in an increasingly complex world. Only an astute and talented executive - which I believe Panetta would be -  can create the sense of exhilaration and commitment which is so vital to a vast organization of secret servants.

And the talents required to inspire men and women in that way may have less to do with a DCI’s experience than with his character.  

California Senator Diane Feinstein, who will chair the Senate Intelligence Committee in the next Congress, expressed public displeasure that she had not been consulted by the President-elect before the Panetta appointment was made public.  Without doubt, that omission by the Obama team was a serious political misstep.  Maybe someone thought since Feinstein and Panetta are both northern Californians who have known each other well for many years, there was no need for prior consultation with the powerful Senator.  If so, they were unaware of Feinstein's stated conviction that the DCI ought to be an intelligence professional.

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Smith is an historian and public policy consultant.


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