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Appointment Intelligence

The Pros And Cons of Picking A Politician To Run The CIA

By Michael Tanji | January 7, 2009

With the news the former Congressman and White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta is President-Elect Obama's choice to head the CIA comes the hue and cry from all corners of the political and intelligence spectrum. Broadly speaking there are two camps:

In one corner you have the seasoned spooks that can't imagine a political player like Panetta at the helm of their ship.

In the other corner you have those who see the choice of a political-managerial player as a way to keep the CIA on track (for at least notional reforms) and first-among-equals in a cabinet that is about to be dominated by personalities such as SECSTATE Hillary Clinton.

Color me somewhat biased, but the intelligence business is not something you can learn, much less truly understand, by reading a book. A President's Chief of Staff is exposed to intelligence to be sure, but he's no Mike Hayden or Porter Goss. The flip side of that coin is that he goes into the job without a lot of pre-conceptions or baggage that could unduly influence his decision-making on relevant issues. (Not that he won't politicize intelligence, but that he would not feel sentimental about people or programs). Old hands are sure to try and snow and slow-roll him, which is why his political and bureaucratic savvy may serve as the trump card to an otherwise weak technical hand. As someone who knows how government organizations work, Panetta can identify bureaucratic BS. If "change" is truly on the agenda in the intelligence business, you need someone like Panetta to communicate the agenda, push the agenda, and crack the heads of those who are not getting with the agenda.

Of course that begs the question of whether or not he's a "change" kind of guy. Remember that he was President Clinton's Chief of Staff when intelligence wasn't very highly regarded in the White House. This was not Panetta's policy then, obviously, but rather President Clinton's. However, since President-elect Obama's chosen national security advisors are largely former Clinton advisors, the CIA may be wondering if they'll have much influence in the Obama White House.

The idea that Panetta was chosen because he's not connected to any past intelligence scandals (real or perceived) doesn't carry a lot of water. The way most people who are ignorant of intelligence matters view things, all of us current and former intelligence professionals are destined for a date at The Hague for war crimes trials. Last time I checked we hadn't won the war on poverty, but we're not calling for former Secretaries of Commerce, Labor, Treasury and HUD to be tried for crimes against humanity. For that lot, no one who actually knows what he's talking about based on practical experience could be tolerated or trusted to hold the job.

Even an ideal mix of intelligence knowledge and political savvy can come up short when you are up against one of the most powerful, change-resistant bureaucracies in the government. The last person with such qualifications - former Congressman Porter Goss - was run down and out by those old hands who didn't cotton to politicians on their turf. It wasn't enough that Goss was a former CIA case officer. He was there to disrupt the status quo and it took them less than two years to send him packing.

Standard issue bureaucratic functions aside, there are other matters we need to be concerned with here. I'm not down with age-ism or any other kind of prejudice, but Leon Panetta is 70 years old. In case you haven't been paying attention, we are awash in a generational, informational, "2.0" wave. Most of the people working in the intelligence community today have been on the job for roughly five years. Technology that didn't exist in the intelligence community just a few years ago is now commonplace. These are change-related issues that the old hands running the business can barely deal with; do we have any indication that Leon Panetta is capable of shepherding the CIA and her people through such internal turmoil?

The wars we are in today, and the wars of the future, are going to rely on intelligence more than ever before. You cannot put steel on target without knowing where to aim. And we are increasingly aiming where we have no (or few) boots on the ground, such as the strikes against al-Qaeda targets deep in the Pakistani tribal areas, for instance.

Considering this, the fact that Panetta doesn't have a strong intelligence background bothers me, but the fact that he's not an intelligence community manager gives me hope. I'll take a real political mover and shaker over a bureaucrat any day. Bureaucrats actively resist and avoid change; politicians will do all kinds of things to bring it about if it's in their interest to do so. Change for the sake of change won't do much good, which makes Panetta's selections for his immediate subordinates at CIA at least as critical as his own appointment. Advised by standard issue old hands, he'll accomplish nothing; advised by former practitioners who have demonstrated their commitment to reform, he might have a chance.

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3 Comments

Admirable thought process. On balance, a positive appointment; very helpful though to keep in mind the constraining variables which you walk through. Now we'll have to see whether he turns to the "standard issue old hands" or to reformers.

Michael, what I find fascinting is the ways in which Web 2.0 applications are being utilized (see Israel-Gaza Conflict Spills Over Into Twitter for a discussion of the realtime use of Twitter in the current Gaza battles). Technology is being applied and is changing in near realtime. Whether or not a tech-dino like Panetta can adapt I think will be interesting.

You are correct on the information "gap" - what Panetta doesn't know may be what hurts him. On the other hand, who he picks may enable him. Nice point.

I think the incoming administration will internally destruct within two years. Then we'll be trying to figure out how the left could call Bush a bad guy.

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