Friday, January 09, 2009
Joe Mazzafro

Because of Panetta’s lack of direct intelligence experience over his 18 years in Congress and eight years in the Clinton Administration as well as the Obama Transition Team’s uncharacteristic inaptness of not consulting with the new Senate Select Committee for Intelligence (SSCI) Chairman Diane Feinstein about the Panetta nomination, there was plenty of drama about intelligence all of a sudden in the main stream media, cable news and talk radio.  I could rehash the functional and partisan polemics of the Panetta choice, but I would rather consider what these events tell us about the place of intelligence in the new Obama Administration.

Aside from the issues of warrantless wiretaps, “enhanced” prisoner interrogation techniques, and the future of Guantanamo, all of which were characterized as civil and human rights issues, there was no serious discussion about intelligence in either the presidential primaries or national campaigns of John McCain or Barak Obama.  As the scope of the economic crisis facing the nation unfolded after the election, the indications that Denny Blair and John Brennan would be joining the announced national security team of Bob Gates (SecDef), Hilary Clinton (SecState), and Jim Jones (National Security Adviser) as DNI and CIA Director, respectively, said to me that the President Elect wanted the Intelligence Community (IC) in the hands of sober professionals he could trust to both deliver the intelligence he would need and to insure that the IC did not get his administration in political trouble at home or abroad while the President focused on more pressing economic issues.

The importance of the IC not costing the President Elect political capital manifested itself almost immediately when a fringe group of 200 concerned psychiatrists objected to Brennan’s nomination because he had not done enough to stop the CIA from using torture (aka enhanced interrogation techniques) while he was in senior positions with the agency.  John Brennan withdrew his name from consideration almost immediately saying he did not want to be “a distraction” to the effectiveness of the new President, i.e. he took one for the team.  Now the problem was finding someone with the qualifications to run the CIA – someone with no association with the controversial IC policies of the Bush Administration and someone who President Obama could trust as a relatively independent actor at Langley.  As the Meatloaf song goes “two out of three ain’t bad” so “come on down” Leon Panetta and run the CIA!

It is starling if not alarming to me that the Obama transition team did not engage Congressional Intelligence Oversight committee staffers and members in trying find a CIA Director to nominate in place of John Brennan.  A conspiracy theory suggests that the Obama team wanted to signal to these oversight committees that they had not done enough to rein in what they considered to be extra constitutional actions of the Bush Administration.  Until there is evidence to the contrary, I am more inclined to accept Vice President Elect Biden’s explanation that not consulting Senator Feinstein as the incoming chairperson of the SSCI responsible for confirming top IC officials was “a bone headed mistake!”

Those who suggest that Leon Panetta’s nomination is a message to the IC in general and CIA in particular to adhere to President Obama’s limited views of executive branch intelligence authorities are probably correct, but those who say Panetta has a presidential writ to shake up the CIA forget this is not something they would have said about John Brennan, who was President Elect Obama’s first choice to be CIA Director.  Then there is Denny Blair, who clearly knows and values the importance of intelligence to effective policy and decision making so I don’t read the Panetta nomination as Obama not caring about intelligence.  Moreover as I write this, John Brennan is being announced as a Deputy National Security Advisor for Counterterrorism and Disaster Response.   This combining of what was a separate homeland security position at the White House with the National Security Council says to me that the Obama National Security Team understands the increasing confluence of foreign and domestic intelligence since 9/11 and is adjusting executive branch organizations appropriately.

While I have confidence in the abilities of all the names nominated by President Elect Obama to be good stewards of IC capabilities and authorities, I am equally certain that the IC will not fare well resource-wise during the Obama Administration.  Yes, world events could and maybe should change this view, but almost all of the members of the Obama National Security Team have track records from the Clinton administration that say we should not expect either a build or build-up of the IC.  Recall that during the Clinton Presidency that neither the Middle East conflicts, the first World Trade Tower attack, Bosnia, Kosovo nor the East Africa Embassy Bombings caused this administration to invest more in DoD or intelligence – and that was with GDP growth hitting double digits and unemployment dropping towards 3%.

The CIA Director drama aside, what does the selection of Denny Blain and Leon Panetta tell me about the place and direction of the IC during the next administration?  In a phrase:  cognitive dissonance, meaning Barak Obama knows instinctively the importance of the IC to the success of his presidency, but he has neither the time, background, nor added resources to deal with the IC. 

That’s what I think; what do you think?

Share Your Thoughts:

Has Signal run a realistic article on Indira Singh and the explosion prior to the first plane's impact on 9/11?

It is my opinion that the IC is more crucial to our nation's well-being than at any time in it's history. With the seemingly increase of foreign agents trying to penetrate our most sensitive computer networks how can it not be. Can't more of the economic stimulus money be put into the effort to keep this country safe, most pf all free.

I am not aware of any SIGNAL Articles on Indira Singh, but would defer to SIGNAL Editor Bob Ackerman. I am not clear on what the connection is between Indira Singh and what I am writing about here

I certainly agree the IC has never been more important to the nation's security than right now, but I am not sure it needs more money. IC spending nearly doubled between 2003 and 2008. Before I could endorese more top line growth for intelligence I want to see the IC better use the assets it has ---
which are second to none on the planet