- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Panetta’s rise

Political power watchers in Washington took note of the leading role played by CIA Director Leon E. Panetta in the successful military operation to take down Osama bin Laden.

The covert program not only propelled elite Navy SEAL counterterrorism commandos into the limelight, but the CIA can now boast of renewed paramilitary prowess.

Mr. Panetta, who will soon move to the Pentagon to replace outgoing Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, was the equivalent of the “military commander” for the operation, said a U.S. official, along with No. 2 commander Navy Vice Adm. William R. McRaven, commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command.

It was Mr. Panetta and Adm. McRaven, based at CIA headquarters in Virginia, who appeared together on a video screen inside the White House situation room to relay in real time the details of Sunday’s operation against bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Mr. Panetta told the president and his key advisers that “Geronimo,” the Apache code name used for bin Laden, was “EKIA,” or enemy killed in action, during the strike.

Mr. Panetta now is expected to ride the operation’s success to a smooth Senate confirmation as defense secretary in coming weeks.

The CIA role in the operation represents a step forward for the agency’s effort to reinvent itself as a premier human intelligence gathering center, especially for counterterrorism paramilitary activities. It follows a low point - the December 2009 terrorist bombing by a double agent who killed seven officers in Khost, Afghanistan.

It was less than 10 years ago, according to former intelligence officials, that CIA covert action had atrophied and was in disarray after the Sept. 11 attacks.

In fact, the Sept. 11 commission, mainly through the efforts of commissioner and former Navy Secretary John Lehman, all but dismissed the rebuilding of CIA covert action capabilities as hopeless.

The commission, in its final report, noted several CIA-led efforts that failed to stop bin Laden in the 1990s and the CIA’s risk-averse culture during the presidential administration of Bill Clinton. It recommended transferring all covert action from the CIA to the Special Operations Command.

The agency resisted, and it was one of the panel’s few recommendations that were ignored.

The commission report revealed the 1998 CIA-led plan to capture bin Laden in Sudan and send him to New York for prosecution on terrorism charges. The plan was scrapped after CIA Director George J. Tenet worried that “people might be killed, including bin Laden,” according to the commission report.

That same year, the Clinton administration launched an unsuccessful cruise missile strike on bin Laden’s camp in Afghanistan. The al Qaeda leader apparently was tipped off before the attack and escaped.

The CIA also covertly tried to get Afghan warlords to capture or kill bin Laden, but they failed four times. Another planned 1999 missile strike was called off at the last minute over worries about causing too many casualties.

The Clinton administration also failed to unleash U.S. special operations forces against bin Laden in 1999. The commission report quoted retired Army Lt. Gen. William Boykin, a senior Pentagon intelligence official, as saying of the special ops failure: “Opportunities [to get bin Laden] were missed because of an unwillingness to take risks and a lack of vision and understanding.”

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