For an agency whose job it is not to be surprised, nearly everything seems to surprise the CIA these days. So it’s not surprising that the agency was surprised by the choice of Leon Panetta to head it. I was surprised too. My first reaction: it’s an odd and unsettling choice. Here’s why.
First, it’s a bad idea to pick a politician to lead the CIA, because it is supposed to be an agency that is not political. Don’t laugh — that’s the way it’s supposed to be. Think about George W. Bush’s most overt effort to politicize the CIA, by picking the Republican ideologue and hatchet man, Representative Porter Goss, in 2006. Goss’ tenure was a disaster, and he had the advantage of being a former CIA officer and chairman of the House intelligence committee. Panetta is a know-nothing when it comes to intelligence.
Which brings up the second problem. The Obama transition team is telling reporters that Panetta had experience as a “consumer” of intelligence when he was chief of staff at the Clinton White House. Well, I have experience as a purchaser of computer equipment, but you wouldn’t want me fixing your laptop. Fixing the CIA — and believe me, it needs fixing, along with serious downsizing — requires someone who knows how the insides work, and Panetta has no clue.
Third, while Panetta may oppose torture — a “no-brainer,” to quote Dick Cheney’s phrase when asked about waterboarding — there are hundreds of former CIA top officials who actually know how the CIA works who were appalled by the torture regime. Any of them might have been a better choice. So opposing torture is a good idea — and yes, it’s amazing that we’re even debating whether torture is acceptable — but Panetta gets no points for me on that score. That’s like saying he opposes child pornography. Duh!
Fourth, Panetta is a relentless centrist and a conciliator. He’s one more cog in the center-right national security apparatus that Obama is patiently assembling. Which raises another very important issue: Is Panetta the one to stand up and fight for civilian control of the intelligence community? Of course not. His boss, it appears, will he Admiral Dennis Blair, yet another top military man appointed to run the U.S. intelligence community as head of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI). Now 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? It was created by Congress, with President Bush’s support, as part of the helter-skelter intelligence reorganization that also saw the creation of several other vast, unneeded agencies: the Northern Command, the Department of Homeland Security, and National Counterterrorism Center, and others. Obama should get rid of all of them. In the meantime, by appointing Blair, a man deeply entangled in the military-industrial complex, Obama is guaranteeing that the CIA and the other fifteen or so agencies that comprise the “community” will be ever beholden to the Pentagon, which already absorbs something like 80 percent of the intelligence budget.
The Panetta appointment is doomed. I give him a year, before he gives up over there. He’s no match for the hardheaded spooks who run the place, and he’s no match for the military brass who are elbowing their way to more and more control of intelligence spending and priorities.