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Damage Control

The Obama team’s damage control operation on Leon Panetta’s selection for CIA Director ramped up yesterday with the usual combination of expressed contrition (to the slighted Senate Intelligence Committee Democrats), newly rounded up allies (e.g. Evan Bayh),  and some soothing words from the President-elect. This report explains:

President-elect Barack Obama phoned key lawmakers to defend the selection of Leon Panetta to head the Central Intelligence Agency and quell concerns over Mr. Panetta’s lack of first-hand intelligence experience.

In his first public comments on intelligence matters since the election, Mr. Obama also promised that his intelligence team would break from Bush administration practices that he said had “tarnished” the government’s image.

The Obama team’s efforts met with mixed results:

Sen. Feinstein, who also heard from Vice President-elect Joe Biden, hasn’t yet been won over. Messrs. Obama and Biden “have explained to me the reasons why they believe Leon Panetta is the best candidate for CIA director,” Sen. Feinstein said Tuesday. “I look forward to speaking with Mr. Panetta about the critical issues facing the intelligence community and his plans to address them.”

As fellow California Democrats, Sen. Feinstein and Mr. Panetta are longtime friends, said one person familiar with their relationship. “She holds him in high regard,” this person said. “It’s not at all any kind of enmity.” But Sen. Feinstein remains concerned about putting someone without hands-on intelligence experience at the helm of the CIA, the person added.

Sen. Rockefeller, an early supporter of Sen. Obama’s candidacy, said he and Mr. Obama “had a good conversation,” according to a Rockefeller aide. “They agreed that perhaps yesterday hadn’t been handled as well as it possibly could have but they’ll move forward from here,” the aide added.

Clearly things have gotten off on the wrong foot:

Although several top CIA officials who have interacted with Obama since the election expressed admiration for his grasp of the issues, the transition process has clearly left a bad taste. One senior official said that “the process was completely opaque” and that the agency was neither consulted nor informed. The official was among several who discussed the subject on the condition of anonymity.

A second official who had worked with President Bill Clinton’s national security team while Panetta was chief of staff said he had no recollection of Panetta taking an active role in intelligence briefings or discussions of CIA policy and practice.

“He just didn’t make an impression,” said the official, who also requested anonymity so he could speak freely.

(Ouch.)

Sen. Feinstein is right to be wary. Should the unimaginable occur during Panetta’s tenure, anyone and everyone who did not seriously evaluate and raise objections to placing someone in that role with no real intelligence background is going to pay a heavy price. Fairly or not, an intelligence failure on Panetta’s watch will be viewed as more than the CIA’s failure. Blame will be spread among the President and the approving Senators who put an intelligence novice in that role. Princeton Professor Julian Zelizer lays out the concern:

It is certainly a risky pick. The virtues are political and intellectual. Panetta is an extremely smart individual with extensive experience in the executive and legislative branches of government. Using these skills, he can potentially help the Agency rebuild itself through new ideas about gathering intelligence and by building strong coalitions of support in Washington. This is desperately needed, in ways that were true of the CIA after the Bay of Pigs in 1961.Then there is the risk. Directing the CIA is one of the most important jobs in the war on terrorism, as intelligence is our central weapon. Given that he has almost no experience in this area, this will put him at a disadvantage and require extraordinary learning on the job. Unlike some other areas of policy, this is one where international challenges and developments set the agenda rather than vice versa so inexperience can be costly.

Now, critics both from the left and the right who see the CIA as ineffective (or worse) might not be overly concerned if a budget guru gets put in charge of a key intelligence agency. There are some who don’t much care if Panetta really isn’t in a position to effectively provide the daily intelligence briefings to the President. Others might not be concerned if the Pentagon continues to assume a bigger and bigger intelligence role. Well, those argument are fine, if made on the merits. But so long as we’re operating under the premise that CIA is key in our national security structure and requires not just a fine manager but a knowledgeable one, then it seems the Panetta selection is playing with fire.

This isn’t the Commerce Department or a White House staff position. James Carafano of the Heritage Foundation is blunt:

The CIA appointment is unlike most senior government positions, the director runs an “operational agency” where life and limb are on the line every day. Not an ideal place for on the job training. Additionally, this is a community of professionals that eye outsiders with caution. Look at the challenges Porter Goss faced and he was a veteran intelligence officer and ran the House oversight committee.

And I suspect that’s what Feinstein and a number of other Senators, Democrats and Republicans alike, are going to be chewing over. (And yes, we’ve had “outsiders” at the CIA before but their record is mixed — that was pre- 9/11 and it’s hard to recall a CIA Director with as little recent intelligence experience as Panetta.) It’s quite a gamble.



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