Making Changes At The CIA

  • Playlist
  • Download
  • Embed
    Embed <iframe src="http://www.npr.org/player/embed/99126597/99126584" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no">
  • Transcript

The CIA under the Bush administration has been plagued by allegations of secret prisons, rendition and intelligence failures. Obama has selected someone without intelligence experience — Leon Panetta — as the agency's new head. Will an outsider be able change the CIA?

Guests:

Tom Gjelten, NPR's intelligence and national security correspondent

Milt Bearden, former senior CIA officer, and co-author of The Main Enemy: The Inside Story of the CIA's Final Showdown with the KGB

John Diamond, author of The CIA and the Culture of Failure

Obama's Pick Of Panetta For CIA Proves Surprising

Leon Panetta i

Former White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta testifies before the Senate Budget Committee in October 2007. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Leon Panetta

Former White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta testifies before the Senate Budget Committee in October 2007.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

President-elect Barack Obama's unofficial choice of Leon Panetta to lead the CIA is proving to be among his most controversial — and surprising — selections in this transition period.

Speculation over possible new CIA directors has swirled for weeks, but Panetta's name was never mentioned, probably because of his lack of direct intelligence experience. Among those caught off-guard by the news was Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, incoming chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

"I know nothing about this, other than what I've read," she said coolly.

Obama quickly called her to apologize for the slight, and Vice President-elect Joe Biden said the Obama transition team made a "mistake" by not notifying Feinstein or other members of Congress about the Panetta selection.

Had she been consulted, Feinstein presumably would have raised concerns about Panetta's thin intelligence background.

Panetta served as White House chief of staff under President Clinton, and in that capacity he sat in on the president's daily intelligence briefings. But aside from that his only exposure to the professional intelligence world came as a young Army officer in the 1960s, when he was assigned to a military intelligence unit at Fort Ord in California during the troop buildup in Vietnam. A fellow intelligence officer who served with Panetta told a California newspaper this week that their primary responsibility was to advise their superiors on "how many more men and draftees they would need to put through training."

"My position has consistently been that I believe the [Central Intelligence] Agency is best served by having an intelligence professional in charge at this time," Feinstein said in her statement.

Her concerns were echoed by the outgoing committee chairman, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), and the ranking Republican, Sen. Kit Bond (R-MO). The questions they raised ensured that Panetta will not be confirmed without facing at least a few tough questions.

Pick Also Draws Praise

Panetta's selection, however, has also won praise. A former senior CIA official who worked with him during the Clinton years said Panetta's experience at the White House gave him "an understanding of how intelligence is used in the policymaking process."

John McLaughlin, a former deputy CIA director, said Panetta makes up for his lack of direct intelligence experience by virtue of "sound judgment, broad governmental experience and savvy about how all the pieces fit together."

Successful leadership of intelligence agencies has not always correlated with intelligence experience, and the CIA at this point could benefit from having an outsider at the head. The agency has been tainted in recent years by controversies over unwarranted wiretapping, secret prisons, and interrogation methods that border on torture.

Moreover, it is clear that Panetta would have strong White House support. Even without confirming his choice of Panetta to lead the CIA, Obama this week said he had "utmost respect" for him and praised Panetta as having "extraordinary management skills, great political savvy [and] an impeccable record of integrity."

At the same time, Obama said he was looking for an intelligence team that would break with practices that he said have "tarnished the image" of the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies.

Working As A Team

Among the unresolved questions is what relationship Panetta would have with retired Adm. Dennis Blair, Obama's unannounced choice to be director of national intelligence.

The two men have complimentary strengths. Blair, a former commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, has been a consumer of large volumes of intelligence, and his command experience could give him an edge over Panetta, who would have to depend heavily on the intelligence professionals who surround him. (Obama transition officials have indicated that the deputy CIA director, Stephen Kappes, is slated to remain in place.) On the other hand, Panetta's Washington insider experience, especially his familiarity with internal White House operations, could be an advantage.

Panetta will face a steep learning curve as CIA director. In the coming months and years, U.S. intelligence chiefs will have to grapple with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a worldwide terrorist threat in al-Qaida, a deteriorating situation in nuclear-armed Pakistan, a resurgent Russia seemingly determined to annoy the West, a rising power in China, and a worsening situation in the Middle East — challenges that humble even the most experienced intelligence professionals.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.