Leon Panetta gets the CIA back on its feet
CIA Director Leon Panetta has a new trophy in his seventh-floor office at Langley: It's the fuse from a Chinese-made rocket that he helped disable (with a CIA technician hovering close by) during a visit to an agency paramilitary training base.
That's a good metaphor for Panetta himself as he completes 14 months as CIA director. He has defused a number of bombs that threatened to blow up what was left of the agency's credibility, and in the process he has focused the CIA on getting the job done.
Panetta was a controversial choice because his experience was in politics, rather than espionage. But that Washington savvy was just what the beleaguered agency needed most. Panetta took on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi after she accused CIA officials of lying, and he quietly prevailed. Congressional Democrats have tempered their CIA-bashing, recognizing that Panetta is carrying out President Obama's policies.
Panetta also defused the ticking bomb of the intelligence reorganization. When Adm. Dennis Blair, the director of national intelligence, tried to assert authority over CIA operations, Panetta protested to the White House. He complained that he couldn't operate on that basis -- and that Blair should have no more say over CIA operations than over those at the FBI. Panetta won that fight, too. Blair is now focusing on his main challenge of coordinating the sprawling intelligence community.
The surprise with Panetta is how aggressively this Democratic former congressman has been waging the war against al-Qaeda. One official describes the Predator campaign to assassinate al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders as "the most aggressive operation in the history of the agency." The tempo has increased to two or three strikes a week, up roughly fourfold from the George W. Bush years.
To provide intelligence for the Predator strikes, the agency is running clandestine sources inside Pakistan and paying off tribal leaders on both sides of the border. The agency's assets are hardly squeaky clean: They are former terrorists who have decided to flip. And Panetta has authority to direct the Predators to hit "signature" targets, meaning vehicles or training locations that are connected to known al-Qaeda operatives.
With the CIA squeezing al-Qaeda in the tribal areas of Pakistan, there's a danger that the terrorists will slip away to new havens. So Panetta is stepping up operations in Yemen, Somalia, and North and sub-Saharan Africa. And the agency is maintaining a strong presence in Iraq even as the U.S. military withdraws, feeding intelligence to the Iraqi military to target the estimated 1,000 al-Qaeda fighters still there.
Iran may be Panetta's biggest headache. The agency is trying to recruit more assets inside Iran, and it is running some operations to disrupt Iran's nuclear capability. But the agency doesn't have (and doesn't want) authority to mount lethal sabotage operations of the sort the Israelis seem to be conducting. CIA analysts think that open military attacks against Iran by the United States or Israel would only help the regime.
Panetta put his mark on the agency this month by choosing his own deputy, Michael Morell, 51, to replace Stephen Kappes, a respected career officer who acted as Panetta's adviser on operations. Morell is a 30-year CIA veteran, but he comes from the analytical side of the house. This should give the clandestine service more running room. An autoworker's son from Akron, Morell defies the preppy, blue-blood CIA stereotype; that's another plus.
Morell's top priority will be to increase collaboration between analysts and operators, which is already paying dividends. To cite two examples: The secret Iranian enrichment facility at Qom was discovered after a tip from a human source, with analysts then focusing intelligence collectors on precisely where to look; and Syria's secret nuclear reactor was found in 2007 after analysts studied suspicious fragments of intercepted conversations and warned the operations division to look for the smoking gun.
Panetta plans to pitch employees Monday about his five-year plan for the agency: It will feature a more diverse workforce better trained in languages; more officers under nonofficial cover who can penetrate the hard targets; and new technologies to cope with the deluge of data, such as "smart search" capability that can learn with analysts and prompt them where to look.
Another of the trophies in Panetta's office is a Wild West statue of a rider being bucked off his horse. Surprisingly, given the turmoil surrounding the CIA when he arrived, Panetta these days seems pretty easy in the saddle.