The debate about the Obama administration’s nomination of Leon Panetta as the Central Intelligence Agency‘s next director highlights the greater visibility of the United States intelligence community.
Media pundits diverge in their opinions about Panetta’s suitability for the role. In doing so, they reveal how each makes assumptions about the CIA’s institutional function, the CIA’s relationship to the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), the budget process, and the experience of political outsiders in assessing the quality of analytical product.
In the sample I looked at The Nation‘s Robert Dreyfuss reflects the consensus view that Panetta is a “doomed” appointee as a political outsider. Dreyfuss makes four key arguments:
(1) Dreyfuss is a political appointee to a non-political organisation.
(2) As a “consumer of intelligence” Panetta is passive and unable to spearhead the operational transformation that the CIA needs.
(3) Panetta opposed the Bush administration’s interrogation techniques yet a CIA insider would have been a better choice.
(4) As “a relentless centrist and a conciliator” Panetta will be outwitted by the Pentagon, the DNI and private military contractors, even though Dreyfuss opines, “the very office of the DNI is a useless post, and the entire office ought to be abolished by Obama on day one. Who needs it?”
Dreyfuss writes great, sarcastic op-ed commentary but the limitations of his arguments becomes clear when you compare his analysis with two columnists who actually know about the intelligence bureaucracy and its function: Slate‘s Fred Kaplan and The New Yorker‘s Steve Coll. Each show for different reasons why Dreyfuss’s arguments are interwoven.
Political appointees to the CIA have a poor track record, Kaplan and Coll agree. Coll finds Panetta’s nomination “unconvincing”. Kaplan suggests that Obama’s priority was to distance his incoming administration from Bush’s perceived politicisation, and in the absence of other candidates, Panetta was the best choice.
This priority also discounts Dreyfuss’s third argument on why a CIA insider would be inappropriate. “He seems to have been selected as a kind of political auditor and consensus builder,” Coll suggests, in agreement with one premise of Dreyfuss’s fourth argument. Coll however does not write-off DNI and suggests Panetta’s limitations: his lack of foreign policy experience, and his lack of direct experience in managing the CIA’s operations and relationships “with other spy chiefs, friendly and unfriendly.”
Dreyfuss believes that Panetta would therefore be under the control of Admiral Dennis Blair, who is Obama’s DNI appointee, and thus undermine the CIA’s civilian status. Kaplan has a more nuanced view of the DNI-CIA relationship and Panetta’s leadership style. He suggests Panetta could retain the CIA’s deputy director Steven Kappes, a move that would please insiders and consolidate his position.
Kaplan also reveals that Panchetta knew more about the CIA’s intelligence programs than Dreyfuss’s write-off suggests. As the Clinton administration’s Office of Budget and Management “director and White House chief of staff, he was not just passively exposed to intelligence issue,” Kaplan counters. He then quotes an email from former counterterrorism chief Richard A. Clarke which reveals that Panchetta “knew about all of the covert and special-access programs.” This experience gives Panchetta the budget skills, special knowledge, and high-level overview of CIA activities that few insiders would have, and that is a close fit with operational transformation methodologies.
If Panchetta’s nomination doesn’t work out I have a Team B that could probably do the job of cleaning up the CIA’s black budget programs, or at least make an Open Source Intelligence attempt. It would include award-winning journalist James Bamford whose book The Puzzle Palace (1982) features revelations about the National Security Agency; anthropologist Carolyn Nordstrom whose book Shadows of War (2005) revealed the new contours of global conflicts; and Economic Gangsters (2008) authors Raymond Fisman and Edward Miguel, who use publicly available information such as diplomats’ parking tickets to uncover potential corruption. Add Kaplan, Coll and their New Yorker colleague Lawrence Wright, and that’s a pretty substantial investigative team with foreign policy and intelligence community experience.