- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 10, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

COMMENTARY:

There are, I suspect, quite a few jobs in government for which having no experience is not a liability. But few would list CIA director among them. That’s why Barack Obama’s pick of Leon Panetta is causing so much consternation.

A former congressman, Mr. Panetta, 70, served as budget director and then as chief of staff in the Clinton administration. But he has never spent a day in the intelligence community.

The outgoing chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, West Virginia Democrat, and the incoming chairman, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, are cool to the choice. Both Mrs. Feinstein and Mr. Rockefeller recommended Deputy Director Steven Kappes.

Mr. Obama originally planned to tap John Brennan, who headed the National Counterterrorism Center at the time of his 2005 retirement. But the rumored appointment ignited protest from left-wingers who opposed the coercive interrogation techniques the CIA used on some high-level al Qaeda prisoners.

“The fact that I was not involved in the decisionmaking process for any of these controversial policies and actions has been ignored,” Mr. Brennan said in a Nov. 26 letter withdrawing his name.

By yielding to Mr. Brennan’s critics, Mr. Obama made it all but impossible to pick anyone who held a senior position in the intelligence community during the Bush administration, which may be why Mr. Kappes was passed over.

If you think it dangerous, at a time when we are engaged in two wars, to have a novice at the CIA, then you’re likely appalled by the Panetta nomination. But if you think of the CIA as a rogue, dysfunctional agency that needs to be reined in, you may think Mr. Obama’s choice is inspired.

Many of those worried about Mr. Panetta have an outdated view of the importance of the CIA. After Sept. 11, 2001, a huge new layer of bureaucracy was imposed on the intelligence community. This was mostly stupid, because there was too much bureaucracy already. But it made the CIA much less important.

Most of the intelligence we gather is collected by the National Security Agency, through its electronic eavesdropping, and by the satellite photos taken by the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency.

The CIA essentially got out of the HUMINT (human intelligence) business when the Clinton administration slashed its budget in the early 1990s. Most of such little intelligence as the CIA now gathers comes from interrogation of prisoners. But most prisoner interrogations are done by the military.

The CIA does still have its analysis branch, which has missed most of the major developments of the last 20 years. And analysis work has been migrating to the various multi-agency intelligence centers established after Sept. 11, 2001.

The real head cheese is the director of national intelligence. For DNI, Mr. Obama has selected retired Adm. Dennis Blair. He’s a former commander of Pacific Command and a former associate director of the CIA, a Rhodes scholar who once water-skied behind the destroyer he was commanding. Adm. Blair doesn’t need Mr. Panetta’s advice on intelligence matters.

But as a skilled bureaucratic infighter whose loyalty will be to the president and not to the CIA, Mr. Panetta may be, thinks Michael Ledeen, just the right guy “to watch Obama’s back at a place that’s full of stilettos and a track record for attempted presidential assassination second to none.”

Because I think the CIA requires wholesale reform, I think better of the Panetta nomination than do most other commentators. But I have two huge concerns.

Mr. Panetta, as President Clinton’s budget director, gutted our HUMINT capability. And Mr. Panetta’s eagerness to define anything that makes terrorists uncomfortable as “torture” means we’ll get precious little information from future interrogations.

Mr. Obama is taking a big chance. If there is a successful terrorist attack on the U.S. during his watch, this is the appointment that will doom his presidency.

Jack Kelly, a syndicated columnist, is a former Marine and Green Beret and a former deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force in the Reagan administration. He is national security writer for the Pittsburgh (Pa.) Post-Gazette.

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