- The Washington Times - Monday, January 12, 2009

COMMENTARY:

A lot of politically snippy things will be said of President-elect Barack Obama’s choice to nominate Leon Panetta as the next CIA director. However, the one we’ll probably hear most often is that “the CIA should be led by someone with intelligence experience.”

I disagree, and regardless of the arguments about intelligence experience or the lack thereof, the Panetta choice is a good one, provided some other things go along with it.

Some history is instructive. In 1976, Gerald Ford appointed George H.W. Bush as director of the CIA. Mr. Bush, an accomplished politician, didn’t have much intelligence experience either. Like Mr. Panetta, Mr. Bush had often been a “consumer” of intelligence, but - also like Mr. Panetta - was definitely not “an intelligence professional,” however one chooses to define the term.

Mr. Bush was appointed CIA director - then called the “Director of Central Intelligence” (and with an arguably wider area of responsibility than the current post-Sept. 11, 2001, CIA director has) because of the turmoil the CIA and the other intelligence agencies were then going though. This was a result of the Watergate scandal that led to Richard Nixon’s resignation, the Church (Senate) and Pike (House) investigations that totally redefined the roles, missions and authorities of the various intelligence agencies while creating the two congressional intelligence oversight committees.

Mr. Bush was a sound choice for the times because of his legislative experience (he had - like Mr. Panetta - served in the House) and because he was able to help navigate the CIA through perhaps its most troubled time in modern history.

It really doesn’t matter that the current public controversies - e.g., torture, so-called “renditions” - regarding the CIA may not be as politically significant as were those of the mid 1970s. What matters is that the CIA is probably in for a long political siege - and someone like Mr. Panetta is perfect for it. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t believe the CIA has acted illegally with these kinds of activities, at least based on what I have read in the open press. Nevertheless, there are plenty of old and new lawyers in town who believe the CIA has violated the law and it’s likely there will be several years of congressional investigations to follow, as well as criminal investigations at the Justice Department. In this respect, I have some fear that the intelligence community will be offered up as a token sacrifice to the liberal legal community, who no doubt feel - so far at least - they have been ignored in the selection of Mr. Obama’s senior leadership.

So, who better to negotiate a political settlement of these issues that currently threaten the intelligence community - at least the CIA part of it - than a former presidential chief of staff and respected congressman?

Now, on to some more practical things that need to be attended to regarding the Panetta selection. First, how could Mr. Obama have made the selection - and announced it - without consulting with the new chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee? Apparently the Obama people “forgot” to do that. While the president-elect quickly apologized, the gaffe may cost the new administration a more difficult confirmation for Mr. Panetta. This because I suspect they didn’t “forget” to consult with the Senate Intelligence Committee at all. More than likely, they didn’t want to deal with a preferred nominee from the committee’s leadership. And - we must be quick to remind - there is an intelligence committee in the House as well. We can only hope that the appropriate consultations have been made, and at the appropriate level, to avoid bruising fragile congressional egos.

Second, what kind of “presence” does Mr. Panetta expect to have at the CIA? Here’s what I mean. If Mr. Panetta goes there and surrounds himself with senior - and heretofore career - CIA people, the agency will eat him alive. He will never have a clue as to what is really going on or what needs to be done - nor even that changes he makes get implemented. He must take a sizable entourage with him - enough people to have trusted aides (all people who do have “intelligence experience”) in every significant activity the CIA has - especially Operations, but also in the “interagency” and dealings with the National Security Council, the director of national intelligence and with Congress. Even then - and because the CIA is so politically and bureaucratically incestuous - it will prove exceedingly hard for him to manage.

In this respect, perhaps the most valuable time Mr. Panetta could spend before his confirmation and during his first few months on the job is with his former House colleague, Porter Goss, a recent former CIA director and former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.

Last - and most important of all - the critical and primary mission of the CIA is to collect vital human intelligence worldwide. There has been plenty of recent criticism that the agency doesn’t know how to do this anymore, and that it doesn’t know how to (and hence won’t) fix itself - because it threatens traditional bureaucratic rice bowls at the agency. Accordingly, Mr. Panetta and his new team will have to stay on the job for several years to have any real impact at the agency - otherwise the bureaucracy there will “wait him out” and continue on its not so merry way. So, I wish Mr. Panetta a long and successful reign as CIA director - long enough to tame the surly bureaucracy there.

Daniel Gallington was bipartisan general counsel to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and served as deputy counsel for intelligence policy at the Justice Department.