Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Raging Debate over Panetta: Agent of Change or Agent of Status Quo?

The choice of Leon Panetta for CIA's top man has certainly launched Washington and Washington-watchers into a cacophony of chatter. There seems to be little common ground between both arguments – he's not qualified or he's a proverbial breath of fresh air.

The former California congressman and chief of staff under President Clinton spoke at The Commonwealth Club of California's centennial celebration in 2003. During the question and answer portion of the program referring to the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, Panetta alluded to the organizational problems in the intelligence community. These same factors may have led to Panetta's appointment. (Read a transcript of Panetta's speech here.)

The Homeland Security Agency, without the FBI and without the CIA being part of it, still creates some of the same conflicts that we have seen before. The only way to resolve those conflicts is when the White House, the president of the United States, basically says, "Everybody operates as a team in getting this job done.

So the Washington chatter contest continues to rage.

Though it is correct that Panetta has no relative intelligence experience outside of Clinton's inner circle, the choice could be seen by some as nothing more than placing a Democratic ally at the post while the current bureaucracy continues to exist.

During the Vietnam War, President Lyndon Johnson became frustrated by consistent missteps by the CIA, according to the award-winning history of the CIA, Legacy of Ashes, by Tim Weiner. Johnson's solution was to install one of his Texas cronies, Admiral William Raborn to the post. Raborn proved ineffectual, lasting a mere 18 months, but Weiner writes the appointment was nothing more than a warm body. Johnson, according to the book, told Raborn he could be napping by noon. The more capable old hand at the CIA, future chief Richard Helms, would carry the load.

This leads us to today. This time around, the candidate likely perceived to have more qualifications is the Deputy Director Stephen Kappes. His problem may be his involvement in signing off the abduction and rendition to Egypt of suspected terrorist Abu Omar. One cynical line of thinking asks whether it is naive to believe that the torture and rendition of suspected terrorists or the extraordinary depths of the CIA's hand in world events will change greatly under Obama's administration. Though the breadth of the clandestine activity might subside under Panetta, his gravitas in Washington could allow for the CIA to conduct business-as-usual.

Since the CIA's creation under Harry Truman, it has proved troublesome for every president at one point or another. Maybe Obama is learning from the past and putting a friend in Langley?


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