- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 17, 2010

CIA Director Leon E. Panetta, after nearly two years in office, has emerged as a fierce protector of the agency’s people and its role in capturing or killing terrorists under an administration that shuns the words “war” and “Islamic terrorist.”

Mr. Panetta, 72, a bookish Northern California liberal known for crunching budget numbers as a congressman, arrived at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., as a Democratic Party man loyal to President Obama and with a bit of a mystery on the subject of waging war.

He has remained true to the president, but he has not shied away from publicly butting heads with prominent Democrats to side instead with his 25,000 officers and analysts. On the counterterrorism front, he has pushed for more CIA involvement in al Qaeda-infested Pakistan and Yemen, while not avoiding the phrase “We are a nation at war.”

All of this has made him popular at CIA stations around the world, observers say.

“He’s got the support of the organization in the field,” said Rep. Peter Hoekstra, Michigan Republican and ranking member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, who visited a dozen stations this fall. “I think he’s done a very good job in building rapport and relationships in Congress. I think the CIA is really doing a good job in the war zones. When I’m out in the stations, you are seeing what they are doing to get the intel that we need to have to keep America safe. They are being very, very aggressive. They’re taking risks.”

The confidence level was not so high in the Obama administration’s first year. One of Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.’s first actions was to launch a second criminal investigation of CIA officers who conducted enhanced interrogations of al Qaeda captives. Mr. Panetta opposed the decision and took his complaints directly to the White House. Career prosecutors in the George W. Bush administration determined that the CIA’s interrogation techniques were authorized.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, made the serious charge that the CIA was lying when it said she was briefed privately on the interrogation methods.

That prompted Mr. Panetta, a fellow Northern Californian and former colleague, to take the unusual step of issuing a public statement rebutting the speaker.

“Let me be clear: It is not our policy or practice to mislead Congress,” he said. “That is against our laws and our values. As the agency indicated previously in response to congressional inquiries, our contemporaneous records from September 2002 indicate that CIA officers briefed truthfully on the interrogation of [al Qaeda terrorist] Abu Zubaydah, describing the enhanced techniques that had been employed.”

“This is the guy who has stood up to the president, has stood up to Eric Holder,” Mr. Hoekstra said of the CIA director. “He hasn’t gotten the job done yet. He’s got to get Eric Holder and the president to come out and say, ‘Hey, we’re not going to prosecute these guys in the CIA. But at least he’s stopped them dead in their tracks so far.”

A scorecard since Mr. Panetta arrived at Langley: It is said that more than 1,000 al Qaeda members and other terrorists have been killed or captured in Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden is said to be hiding. The CIA is waging a secret war in the tribal areas, using officers on the ground and missile strikes from remotely operated Predator aircraft.

The director stays in touch by sending internal messages to headquarters and the stations at the rate of one per week, keeping the staff up to date about what he is doing. He has flown more than 150,000 miles to visit 40 CIA stations and bases in 30 countries.

“Its no secret that the CIA has become the favorite punching bag for the extreme left,” said Sen. Christopher S. Bond, Missouri Republican and vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. “Throughout all of this, Mr. Panetta has been a strong and credible leader for the CIA and the dedicated professionals working there, and not ceding ground on baseless allegations.”

Mr. Bond said that, at Mr. Panetta’s confirmation hearing, he announced support “because he assured me that he will lean forward in the fight against terrorism.”

“I think he’s kept that commitment,” he said.

Story Continues →