In the Arena

Panetta to CIA

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This smells a bit of desperation. Leon Panetta is a terrific guy, a fine public servant–one of those people who reek of sanity and good judgment–but he doesn’t have much, if any, experience in spook world. The problem was trying to find a DCI with intelligence experience who wasn’t tainted during the Bush Administration.  The CIA had a mixed record during the past eight years–it was n’t very good at penetrating Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda network; it was mixed up in some very dirty stuff, like torture and rendition; but its analysts were reluctant participants in the Bush-Cheney Iraq war hysteria and, as a result of their honesty, eventually were subjected to a Cheney-led purge, officiated over by Porter Goss, the worst CIA director in recent memory.

Goss’s successor, Michael Hayden, has done a good job restoring morale and efficacy in Langley. The CIA’s predator attacks targeting Taliban leaders inside Pakistan has been a quietly effective program (with, I’m told, some tacit assistance from the Pakistanis, with whom Hayden has cultivated closer relations in recent months).  He also was a driving force behind the national intelligence finding that  Iran had suspended its nuclear bomb program. Unfortunately, Hayden is guilty by association: he was involved in intelligence work during the Bush administration. The NSA’s data-mining program, now legal (but still controversial on the civil-liberties left), was his baby. He has opposed the prosecution of CIA operators who may have been involved in “enhanced” interrogations, even though the most serious of those techniques, like water-boarding were stopped long before Hayden arrived in Langley. But he would have been difficult to retain–if for no other reason than the proliferation of Republicans and former Generals on Obama’s national security team.

And so, Panetta, who now faces a real challenge: he has to show himself more sensitive to the integrity of the intelligence-gathering process than Porter Goss was. Given the insidious nature of the terrorist threat, accurate intelligence is more important than ever–and the precise use of CIA’s kinetic capabilities is one of the few tools, short of war, that the government has to deal with the people who mean to do us harm. There is a fine line between excess and success in the intelligence business, and Panetta will have to locate and walk it. It may be the most difficult bureaucratic job in the government. I hope he does well.