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THE PANETTA WATCH 1: INAUGURAL EDITION

By       Message R.H. Smith     Permalink
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Leon Edward Panetta was about to celebrate his fourth birthday in Monterey, California when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt “christened a mysterious addition to his New Deal alphabet bureaucracy”.

That quotation is from a book I wrote nearly 40 years ago about the World War II OSS – the first serious history, I like to think, of a modern American Intelligence Service.We don’t hear much, these days, about FDR and his New Deal – except in dread analogy of the current economic crisis to the Great Depression that brought Roosevelt to the White House.  One curiosity of political history is that the last President to pay homage to FDR was the conservative Republican Ronald Reagan, whereas newly-inaugurated President Obama finds his inspiration in the bearded orator who was the first Republican icon on Pennsylvania Avenue.

That’s understandable. The President was born two decades after Pearl Harbor. He has no personal memory of Roosevelt or the Depression or what my parents’ generation called “The War”.

But Leon Panetta remembers The War, and the New Deal, and the great man in a wheel chair whose portrait adorned the walls of millions of American homes.  And if a government bureaucracy can have collective memory, so too does the Central Intelligence Agency, formed on the foundation of the OSS that Roosevelt created in 1942.

Panetta and the CIA-cum-OSS are of an age. Both – to continue my anthropomorphosis of a bureaucracy – are eligible for Social Security.

For most of my own life, I’ve studied American Intelligence history – a bizarre historical by-path, but one of endless fascination. And it’s as an historian that I inaugurate this Panetta Watch – not a biographic chronicle of the man, the 70 year-old public servant, but rather my periodic reflections, without benefit of any secret knowledge, on how that man may inter-act with the most notorious government agency in the world.

I’m assuming, of course, that Panetta’s appointment as Director of Central Intelligence will be painlessly confirmed by the US Senate, a very good bet, barring some unforeseen stumbling block.  With much greater trepidation, I’m also postulating (leaving prediction to the more intrepid)  that Panetta’s “watch” at CIA may be an historic turning-point for the Agency.

There haven’t been many milestones in the 67 years since “Wild Bill” Donovan first set up OSS shop in Roosevelt’s Washington.  Unless you count “flaps” and scandals and desperate damage control as worthy landmarks. No shortage of those, from the Bay of Pigs onward to nearby Guantanamo.

I’m looking forward to something more positive, and that expectation isn’t entirely the hunch of a touchy-feely Californian.

Two weeks ago, I hurriedly scribbled out, with excessive verbiage, my first impressions of why the Panetta Watch may be what Silicon Valley venture capitalists, speaking of business innovation, call “transformational.” To put some of those earlier thoughts more coherently –

Panetta is a liberal, but he will not come to CIA as a “reformer” or tenacious “watchdog”. He will surely exhibit a healthy skepticism about the more outré activities of secret bureaucracy, but without finding them so inherently revolting as to be beyond the limits of informed discussion. CIA legend Allen Dulles once described himself as a “realist-idealist”, just as John F. Kennedy was an “idealist without illusions”. 

After four decades in Washington, beginning as a liberal Republican before he found the GOP veering hopelessly to the Right, Panetta will have shed all burdening illusions, without discarding the ideals that first brought him to politics  - the same ideals that provide a primary justification for a secret service within democratic government.

Panetta will enter the Director’s suite at CIA as an “outsider” to the Intelligence Community; but in every other Washington sense, he is the compleat “insider”.  He is a four-term congressional veteran, one of the few Capitol Hill luminaries to master the overwhelming task of budgetary oversight. He is intimately familiar with the power plays of the West Wing where he held court during the Clinton years. He even knows his way around Wall Street after some years as a director of the New York Stock Exchange in collegial affinity with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and corporate diva Carly Fiorina.

In other words, Panetta brings to CIA ample reserves of “clout” which will make him the most “well-connected” Director in recent memory.  Together with a sharp intelligence (in the cerebral sense), this should gain him instant respect within an Agency that revels in the executive influence of its Director.

And that’s before taking into account Panetta’s two most important “connections” - with the Secretary of State and the President.

The traditional cultural discord between the State Department and the CIA, between “cookie-pushers” and “spooks” in Embassies abroad, may be overstated. But it is real and sometimes unfortunately reflected at the top. Not since the 1950s Cold War era, when America’s chief diplomat was the brother of America’s chief of Intelligence, has there been the close working-relationship between Secretary and Director that would make CIA’s “covert action” what it was first intended to be – an extension of “diplomacy, by other means”.  Leon Panetta’s long association with Mrs. Clinton could restore the original rationale for CIA’s sub rosa meddling in the affairs of other nations.

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Smith is an historian and public policy consultant.


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