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.
Added Mr. Hoekstra: “This president is allowing the intel community to do its job in ways I think many people thought he would never let them do. And I think it’s because of Panetta.”
The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and subsequent war on terrorism has propelled the CIA into an unprecedented number of secret missions - and with it constant political scrutiny.
Public inquiries showed the agency missed chances to identify the Sept. 11 terrorists before they attacked. They also highlighted the CIA’s sharp decline during the Clinton administration, so much so that CIA Director George J. Tenet declared the agency in “Chapter 11” bankruptcy. The CIA said Iraq continued to harbor weapons of mass destruction in 2003, but only traces were found after the U.S. invasion.
Then came allegations that the CIA tortured some captives. In addition, Mr. Hoekstra wrote a letter to Mr. Bush accusing Langley bureaucrats of waging a war against Mr. Bush in the press by leaking secrets and anonymously deriding White House officials. The headquarters revolted against former Rep. Porter J. Goss, Mr. Bush’s second CIA director after Mr. Tenet. With Mr. Goss gone, the next chief, retired Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden, moved to stop the leaking and focus officers on the mission.
Republicans say Mr. Bush, who more than doubled annual intelligence spending to more than $50 billion, made a mistake by keeping the Democrat-appointed Mr. Tenet as director. Mr. Bush had no loyalist at CIA to stop the leaks. Mr. Obama turned to a Democratic politician in Mr. Panetta, and there have been few anti-Obama leaks.
“Considering the administration he has to work with, he’s doing a pretty good job,” said Bart Bechtel, a former CIA operations officer. “He’s trying to protect his folks, and he’s standing up to people like Pelosi. I think by and large his heart is in the right place. I think he understands the importance of the agency where the rest of the administration doesn’t.”
Mr. Bechtel said Mr. Panetta’s willingness to put out statements rebutting powerful critics “is important to all the employees, the stations and everybody because they need to know they’ve got a director who is looking out for them.”
“They feel like they may not have anybody else looking out for them,” he said.
The biggest blunder under Mr. Panetta was one of the worst in CIA history. It occurred in December, when officers allowed a poorly screened Jordanian informant to enter a forward operating base in Khost, Afghanistan. He was not searched, and the al Qaeda double agent detonated a concealed bomb, killing seven agency employees. It was the most lethal agency fatality since Beirut in 1983.
Khost is strategically important to the CIA. On the border with Pakistan, the base is a gateway to the lawless tribal lands where al Qaeda operates. One of the base’s jobs is to find locals willing to spy on the terrorists and provide locations so a Predator can strike.
In September, Mr. Panetta visited the outpost and dedicated a plaque to the seven. The plaque includes a verse from Isaiah:
“And I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then said I, Here am I; send me.”
A month later, the director issued a statement on a task force review that found the officers at Khost were terribly lax in security.
“The task force determined that the Khost assailant was not fully vetted and that sufficient security precautions were not taken,” Mr. Panetta said. “These missteps occurred because of shortcomings across several agency components in areas including communications, documentation and management oversight.”
To some in the agency, it was again Mr. Panetta defending the agency by declining to single out and punish anyone. But to others, the director failed to enforce accountability.
“Panetta’s commission report on Khost seems to have stated it was a disaster, but no one was at fault,” said a longtime CIA employee who requested anonymity. “I think that’s wrong and hurts morale. Panetta would say he did so in order to keep morale up.”
George Little, Mr. Panetta’s chief spokesman, told The Washington Times: “The agency conducted an exhaustive review of the Khost attack and found that responsibility could not be assigned to any one group or individual. This was a case of shortcomings across multiple CIA components. There seems to be a natural tendency in Washington to look for ways to place blame, but thats not always the right thing to do.”
Amid travels here and abroad, Mr. Panetta took time last spring to host a cook-off at Langley for contestants in the Bravo cable-TV network’s “Top Chef” show. Mr. Panetta and selected staff were tasting and commenting on dishes in the executive dining room, when an aide handed him a slip of paper. The director read it, then abruptly excused himself and left, never to return.
Why Mr. Panetta was called away remains a top secret.