A Surprise Pick for CIA Chief

By David Ignatius
Wednesday, January 7, 2009

On its face, it's a puzzling choice: Barack Obama selects as his spy chief a former congressman with no firsthand experience as an intelligence professional. Is Obama dissing the CIA? Is he further politicizing this badly bruised agency? What signal is he sending by picking Leon Panetta as CIA director?

Here's the message, according to Obama's advisers: Panetta is a Washington heavyweight with the political clout to protect the agency and help it rebuild after a traumatic eight years under George Bush, when it became a kind of national pincushion.

"Leon is not going to preside over the demise of the CIA," explains one member of the Obama transition team. "The CIA needs to have someone who can represent them well."

This argument for Panetta makes sense. Ideally, the next CIA director would have been an experienced professional -- someone like Steve Kappes, the veteran case officer who now serves as deputy director. But the reality is that the professionals now lack the political muscle to fend off the agency's critics and second-guessers. That's the heart of the problem: The agency needs to rebuild political support before it can be depoliticized.

The Panetta choice illustrates, once again, Obama's desire for strong personalities in key jobs. As White House chief of staff during the second Clinton term, Panetta was one of the few people who could discipline the omnivorous President Bill Clinton. He sat in on the daily intelligence briefings as chief of staff, and he reviewed the nation's most secret intelligence-collection and covert-action programs in his previous post as director of the Office of Management and Budget.

Both Kappes and his boss, retired Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden, wanted the nod. Both were rejected -- partly because they were seen as too connected to the policies of the past and partly because they lacked political heft. Hayden had worked hard to improve morale at Langley and to make friends on Capitol Hill, but in the insular CIA culture he remained something of an outsider.

Obama's advisers say they want Kappes to continue as deputy. And in another sign that Obama doesn't see previous CIA service as a disqualification, John Brennan, who was a top aide to former CIA Director George Tenet, is likely to be offered a senior position on the National Security Council staff. Brennan, the head of Obama's transition team on intelligence, was forced to withdraw from consideration as CIA director when liberal critics complained he was too closely tied to Bush-era policies.

A quick survey of CIA sources indicated support for Panetta among a workforce that is notoriously prickly -- and that has demonstrated an ability to sabotage bosses it doesn't like. "Thank goodness it's not a military guy," said one former officer, who, like some other colleagues, had resented the growing role of former military officers such as Hayden as CIA director and retired Adm. Mike McConnell as director of national intelligence.

Complementing the Panetta nomination is the choice of Dennis Blair to succeed McConnell as DNI. Blair is another retired admiral, but Obama's advisers say he will bring a "light touch" to his new job of coordinating the intelligence community. They insist he won't try to duplicate CIA management functions, as McConnell was sometimes accused of doing.

Blair's mission, according to Obama's advisers, will be to streamline the 2004 intelligence reorganization that created the DNI structure to oversee the nation's 16 intelligence agencies. In the view of one key member of the Obama team, that reorganization "currently verges on dysfunction," with too many people on the DNI staff and too much internal bickering.

Blair is likely to move quickly to reduce the number of personnel and contractors in the DNI bureaucracy, and to make other changes that signal he wants a leaner and more disciplined organization.

With the high-profile Panetta at CIA and the low-key Blair at DNI, the relative balance in the intelligence community would shift a bit, in the CIA's favor. The point of contact for foreign intelligence services will be the CIA, in Washington and overseas, according to the Obama team. That will please both agency officers and foreign spy chiefs who have complained about the confusion created by McConnell's overreaching DNI staff.

Obama doesn't have any background in intelligence, but insiders say that since the election, he has been immersing himself in the murky world of secret operations with his characteristic lawyerly diligence. He made a surprising decision in picking Panetta, but on balance, a good one.

The writer is co-host of PostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues. His e-mail address is davidignatius@washpost.com.

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