After a bit of mental digestion, it appears the nomination of Leon Panetta to head the Central Intelligence Agency is the first major-league screw-up on the part of the Obama Administration. Five thoughts . . . .
1. Institutional memory. I’m reading Timothy Weiner’s supremely critical history of the CIA, Legacy of Ashes. I don’t agree with all of his conclusions, but it is meticulously researched.
The CIA is the only government agency where the public expectation is to know everything about everything, from how many tanks Russia could put into Georgia in 24 hours to what is going on in the head of a jihadi in the mountains of Pakistan. To try to fulfill that impossible mission (no pun intended), the organization spends billions of dollars, has thousands of officers running operations around the world, handling thousands of agents in foreign governments and organizations, using everything from the most advanced satellites and eavesdropping technology to horses to run around the peaks of Afghanistan. It is, in effect, the biggest and most complicated information-gathering system ever assembled.
And Leon Panetta steps into the top job knowing very little about any of that. He has, presumably, not seen the organization’s “product” in at least eight years, and quite possibly not in the past twelve years (he departed as White House chief of staff in 1997).
Panetta is a smart guy, and he’s worked in some tough jobs before. But he’s starting with a knowledge base of specific CIA operations and analysis that is next to zero. The learning curve is going to be supremely steep.
2. Briefings. One of the reasons George W. Bush and George Tenet managed to have a good working relationship was that Tenet often joined the President for his morning briefing, and answered questions personally.
How long do you think it will take Panetta to get up to speed on the hundreds of different issues in intelligence, national security, and foreign policy that the PDB will include? Six months? A year? Two years? By the time Panetta finds his sea legs, he’ll probably be ready to leave. This is because of . . .
3. Burnout. Director of CIA is a job with a supremely high burnout rate: Of the 20 CIA directors in the organization’s history, seven lasted only a year or so: Porter Goss, John Deutch, George H.W. Bush, James R. Schlesinger, William Raborn, Hoyt Vandenberg and Sidney Souers. James Woolsey lasted two years, as did Robert Gates, Walter Bedell Smith, and William E. Colby (roughly). It may be the hardest job in Washington next to the president. I hope Mrs. Panetta isn’t expecting to spend much time with her husband in the coming years. The exhausting nature of the job raises the question of . . .
4. Age. The country spent much of the past two years deriding the idea of a 72-year-old serving as president. But a 70-year-old in this job – with the 4 a.m. wake up calls after the 3 a.m. phone calls – is fine, apparently.
5. Preparation. Panetta was on nobody’s short list, or long list, when possible names were thrown around in recent months. The Obama team had to know that he would be their most surprising pick, even beyond Hillary Clinton at the State Department, and they didn’t feel out the views of the leaders of the relevant congressional committees?
And finally . . .
6. Consequences. Say what you will about Tenet, and about 9/11 and the botched Iraq WMD intelligence occurring on his watch, but the response to 9/11 also occurred on his watch, and he and the organziation deserve at least some credit for the lack of attacks on American soil from 9/11 to 2004. Goss rubbed many in the organization the wrong way, but again, he presided during a year of no attacks. Current director Gen. Michael Hayden is generally well-regarded inside and outside the Agency, and indeed, no attacks (knocking on wood).
If there is a terror attack on American soil during Panetta’s watch, it will set off a firestorm of criticism that will make the 9/11 Commission hearings look like a tea party.