Panetta: From Washington Insider to CIA Outsider

Panetta: From Washington Insider to CIA Outsider

For Leon Panetta, the CIA’s presumptive new boss, the hard part is yet to come. A confirmation hearing by the Senate Intelligence Committee was hardly the trial-by-fire that some had predicted for President Barack Obama’s nominee, and since he has been unanimously confirmed by the panel, his ratification by the full Senate is expected to be uncomplicated. But Panetta must now take charge of an agency battered by years of controversy and scandal, ranging from failure to anticipate the 9/11 attacks and faulty intelligence about Saddam Hussein’s weapons programs to the torture of terrorism suspects and, most recently, allegations of rape by the agency’s Algeria station chief.

Panetta told the committee that his goal as director of Central Intelligence would be “to prevent surprise.” He spoke forcefully against the use of torture and the Bush Administration’s practice of “extraordinary rendition,” which involved moving detainees to third countries where they could be tortured. At the same time, Panetta drew a line under the abuses of the past, saying no agency member should be prosecuted for using interrogation techniques, including waterboarding, that were authorized by the Bush Justice Department. And the nominee said his extensive political experience would help him in his new gig. “I know Washington,” Panetta said. “I know why it works, and why it fails to work.”

Panetta, 70, is the consummate Washington insider: he was President Bill Clinton’s White House chief of staff and a longtime Congressman from California. But his nomination ran into some early trouble when the Obama transition team failed to consult Intelligence Committee head Senator Dianne Feinstein before naming Panetta. Feinstein let it be known that she would have preferred an intelligence professional for the job. But at the hearing, Feinstein said she was reassured that Panetta would “surround [himself] with seasoned professionals.”

Republican Senator Kit Bond, the committee’s vice chairman, was less forgiving. “Many of us believe that the CIA director should have a professional intelligence background, which you clearly don’t have,” he told Panetta.

But several former intelligence officials have told TIME that Panetta’s political experience will be an invaluable asset. “You have lots of smart people at the agency who can do the intelligence side,” says Paul Pillar, a 28-year CIA veteran who teaches at Georgetown University. “What Panetta brings is an understanding of the political side of things, and that’s a big part of the [director’s] job.”

The CIA has had mixed experiences with directors that came from outside its ranks. Clinton appointee John Deutch , for example, was regarded as a disaster. After he resigned, Deutch was found to have kept unclassified material in his personal computers; it took a presidential pardon to save him from further investigation.

But other “civilians” appointed to the job have had great success — President George H.W. Bush , for one, is credited with restoring the CIA’s morale after a series of scandals.

A retired top CIA official who spoke on condition of anonymity said Panetta could learn from the examples of Deutch and Bush. “He shouldn’t turn up at Langley and say to the world, ‘This place is broken and I’m going to fix it,’ like Deutch did,” he says. “Bush was successful because he respected the agency and used his political skills to make it stronger.”

Panetta’s main challenge, say former intelligence officials, is to restore the CIA’s public image. In the latest scandal, the CIA station chief in Algiers has been brought back to the U.S. following allegations that he raped two women — a case that will likely be waiting on Panetta’s desk on his first day. Although the incident may be a one-off, says Fred Burton, a former intelligence analyst with the Diplomatic Security Service who now works for the private analysis firm Stratfor, it raises “questions about the hiring process, the background checks. How does a person like that get in [the CIA]”

Panetta, says Pillar, “will need to work on outside perceptions of the agency. It’s not only about image, it’s about an understanding of what the CIA can and can’t do.”

Another challenge is building a cordial relationship with Admiral Dennis Blair, the new director of National Intelligence. Although the CIA director ranks lower than the DNI, Panetta has considerably more clout inside the Beltway than Blair does. That could make for a tricky relationship. “It’s a bit upside-down,” says another former agency official. “In some ways, it would have made more sense to make Panetta DNI and Blair the DCI.”

Responding to a question at the hearing, Panetta described Blair as his “boss” and promised to work closely with the DNI.

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