Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Leon Panetta - Nominee for CIA Director

by Emily Francona

The local Monterey Peninsula community is all atwitter with the news of President-Elect Obama's nomination of local favorite Leon Panetta for the directorship of the Central Intelligence Agency. Local personalities and various self-appointed spokespersons, qualified or not, have already made statements for the record about the nomination. While most are justifiably proud of having a "local boy" potentially ascend to this highly responsible national position, it also reveals a lamentable lack of understanding of our intelligence community by these very same fans.

The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 (Public Law 108-458) established the position of Director of National Intelligence (DNI) as the head of the U.S.intelligence community and as the principal advisor to the President. The Act directs that a nominee to this position "shall have extensive national security expertise" and prohibits the director of CIA from being dual-hatted as the Director of Central Intelligence, as was the case before this new law.

Let's review Panetta's qualifications: a legal background with extensive government experience, both in the legislative and executive branch, however little directly related to national security. While some of his experiences may well have brought him into passing contact with intelligence information and national security issues, such as when he was chief of staff for President Clinton, it is far short of the serious professional credentials needed to guide and direct the CIA, or any intelligence agency for that matter. While his public policy credentials are impressive, the CIA supports national security policy - these are two entirely different arenas.

Given the complexity of intelligence issues and the many real or perceived intelligence failures in the history of that agency, a thorough professional understanding of the intelligence profession is indispensable for effective leadership of the CIA. It is precisely because this agency needs reforms to produce more timely and actionable intelligence for U.S. national security decision-making, that its director must understand the capabilities and limitations of the intelligence business, and not be fooled by insiders’ ability to “wait out one more director.”

Some of the very qualifications touted by Panetta's fans are not desired or needed by a director: he does not need “the ear of the president” since that is the function of the DNI. Nor does this position require political savvy, since that is not a function of any intelligence agency director. In fact, it would be downright counterproductive, given repeated criticism of the “politicization of intelligence” in recent years. Similarly, the legal framework for the conduct of intelligence activities is provided by appropriate legislation, overseen by the DNI and checked by the legislative oversight committees.

It is surprising that President-Elect Obama apparently did not consult in advance with the leadership of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the very body who will grant or not grant Panetta’s confirmation. If anything, the very advantages Panetta supporters recite are more suited for the office of DNI: this position does require considerable political savvy and direct access to the presidential, but also a thorough understanding of national security issues. It remains to be seen if Admiral Blair is that person, if confirmed.

Mr. Panetta: with all due respect to your fine public policy credentials, decline this appointment for the good of the intelligence community and the decision makers it serves. You would make an effective governor of California!