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Leon Panetta at CIA Means Bad Things Long Term for DNI

Posted by Bob Kohm on January 5, 2009


It is no secret that many view the CIA as, once again, a broken organization. Still reeling from the triple blows of the selective intelligence scandal that led to the disastrous   briefing before the start of the Iraq War, the indignity of the DCI having to answer to an “Intelligence Czar” after the 9/11 Commission Report hit and the misadventures of some of the folks on the Ops side of the house, CIA is little more than a gaggle of intelligent analysts working under a shell shocked and demoralized hierarchy of GS-15s and SES appointees trying to regain some swagger and find a direction. Sure, the meta-stuff is out there– track bin Laden, analyze alQ data, keep an eye on China & Russia, get a handle on the developing Egyptian situation, etc.– but that stuff is almost background noise at this point; it’s the stoplight idling of a sports car engine.

Enter management guru but intelligence naif Leon Panetta. Panetta is nobody’s idea of a DCI– he’s a political guy who happens to be good at running organizations; at the top level he doesn’t seem like someone who can restore the sense of purpose and bravado to the Agency. 

He’s actually uniquely suited to do so.

Barack Obama is a very pragmatic guy; some in the GOP may crow (still… yawn) about Democrats meaning big government, but I believe that Obama will be looking to set his government as an efficient machine and kick off the training wheels when he has confidence in each component. When I consider that the whole DNI overlord position is just another layer of bureaucracy rather than a true coordinator of disparate agencies and departments and hear in the background that idling engine stuck in traffic at Langley I start to see something new emerging. 

Leon Panetta is a mechanic. He’s there to tune the engine and fix the machine so that it can run on its own again. 

Panetta’s entire skill set revolves around taking malfunctioning bureaucracies and government institutions and making them work; look at the discipline and efficiency he imposed upon the biggest group of glory hounds we’ve seen in recent years, the Clinton Cabinet. If Mr. Panetta can bring that kind of efficiency and purpose to Langley, CIA may again become the useful tool that it once was and that I believe Mr. Obama intends for it to be again. If CIA under Panetta can gain the confidence of Obama in two years, I would look for the office of DNI to first be downplayed and then, eventually, eliminated as a cost savings to the American Government.

Dennis Blair, who will be installed at DNI, is exactly the intel pro who can keep the operations and analysis flowing while Panetta acts as a one man HR & Organizational Review shop. Put them together and you have the chance of CIA coming out of this being what it should actually be– a flexible organization that while task oriented also follows a long term strategic trajectory and does so without internal drama. Dare to dream.

As for the politics of the announcement, this one was a beauty. While incoming Chair of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee Diane von Furstenberg Feinstein got her designer togs all wrinkled rushing to find the nearest mic to scream into today over Panetta being chosen against her stated desires and without her even being consulted, other members of Senate Select Intel (notably the gentleman from Oregon) were waiting to cut her off at the knees with the acknowledgement that they had been consulted.

The whole announcement drama can be traced back to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s very public bitch-slapping of Rahm Emmanuel while he was effectively gagged by Patrick Fitzgerald and the Blago mess. Madame Speaker very kindly (and publicly) advised Emmanuel that not only was his advice and counsel not needed nor welcomed when the topic was House Leadership and procedure but that the incoming President was not allowed to speak to any member of the Democratic Caucus in the House without what amounted to her permission, and that the President was then to provide her with a debrief of every conversation that she chose to allow.  It would seem that Ms. Pelosi’s powerplay was deemed in need of a similarly public reversal, hence Mr. Obama choosing to embarrass the hell out of Pelosi ally Feinstein today by goign under, around, and over her without a word on the nomination. She’s not in a position to torpedo the nomination– Panetta has too many friends that Feinstein relies upon, and besides there’s no way any Dem is going to get in the way of the juggernaut that will be the Confirmation Hearings and come out unscathed.

In the end the Panetta pick is a slightly risky one for Obama– should CIA have some great failing in the next year due to a lack of professionalism, having a non-intel guy at the helm will look bad– but one that could pay high dividends, both in the return to function of the CIA as well as in undoing the dopey DNI implementation. That it sevred as an object lesson in power politics to Speaker Pelosi, Senator Reid and all other interested parties– well, that was just cake.


Posted in American Politics, Intelligence (and lack thereof), Obama Cabinet | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

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