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Intelligence Nominees Under Senate Scrutiny

By Gary Thomas
21 January 2009

Hearings open Thursday on the first of U.S. President Barack Obama's nominees for the country's top two intelligence posts. The Senate Intelligence Committee first looks at Retired Admiral Dennis Blair, who has been tapped to be Director of National Intelligence. The committee will turn its attention later to Leon Panetta, the choice for head of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Both Admiral Blair and Leon Panetta are expected to easily win confirmation from the Democratic-controlled Senate. But there may be a few fireworks along the way about issues like interrogation practices, CIA secret detention facilities, and intelligence reform.

Leon Panetta may face some pointed questioning. Panetta is a former congressman and White House chief of staff who is highly respected for his executive and organizational skills. But he has no experience in the intelligence world.

In announcing the nominations, Mr. Obama emphasized Leon Panetta's wide governmental experience.

"As a congressman, OMB director, and White House chief of staff, he has unparalleled experience in making the institutions of government work better for the American people. He has handled intelligence daily at the very highest levels, and time and again, he has demonstrated sound judgment, grace under fire, and complete integrity," he said.

Panetta: A Question of Experience

While his lack of hands-on intelligence experience is not expected to derail his nomination, the choice highlights the long-running debate over whether a professional intelligence officer or a political loyalist should run the CIA.

President Obama is reported to have wanted a professional, former CIA veteran John Brennan. But the choice ran into opposition from some interest groups that tried to link him to the enhanced interrogation techniques, like waterboarding, which is in effect simulated drowning. Brennan was instead tapped to be White House counter-terrorism coordinator, a job that does not require Senate confirmation.

The University of California at Los Angeles's Amy Zegart, who lectures on intelligence matters, said it is understandable why Mr. Obama wanted to break with Bush administration policies on detainee and interrogation issues. But, she added, there are other qualified intelligence professionals who could have filled the CIA job.

"It is frankly an absurd idea that any intelligence professional working in any intelligence agency over the past eight years is somehow advocating the use of torture. That is absolutely not the case, and there are a number of intelligence professionals out there who would be fine choices who were not front and center in pushing these policies. These policies were political decisions made by political officials in the Bush administration," she said.

Torture and the CIA

Retired CIA officer Gary Berntsen, who was a New York state organizer for losing presidential candidate John McCain, is unapologetic about the CIA's actions.

"The left in America has been very, very angry about CIA. They think that there have been excesses. They did not like the fact when the Bush administration came out and admitted they had waterboarded Khalid Shaikh Mohammad, Ramsi Binalshibh and one other individual. They thought this was a stain upon the U.S. and they are looking to turn that around. The problem is that we need an aggressive intelligence service," he said.

There have been outsiders in charge of the CIA before. Some have fared well, while others have run into a wall of hostility at CIA headquarters.

Changing with the Times

The job of CIA chief has also changed in recent years. Until 2005, the CIA director was also the titular head of the U.S. intelligence community, holding the title of Director of Central Intelligence. But Congress created the job of Director of National Intelligence to coordinate the efforts of the 16 federal agencies that engage in intelligence work.

Amy Zegart said a CIA director must now be much more directly engaged in daily operations.

"The difference about appointing an outsider as opposed to earlier times is that the threat environment is much more complicated and it is changing much more quickly. And so whether we can afford someone to get up to speed on basic intelligence issues today is a much more serious question than it was when the Soviet Union did everything on five-year plans," she said.

Gary Berntsen said Panetta will likely be questioned, especially by skeptical Republicans, about his actions relating to counter-terrorism when he was White House chief of staff in the Clinton administration.

"Clearly what will come up are questions about Mr. Panetta's role in the White House, the Clinton White House, at a time when al-Qaida was conducting geometric growth and when we provided President Clinton with multiple opportunities to take out bin Laden. It will be interesting to see what Mr. Panetta's role in those meetings was and his recommendations," said Berntsen.

Amy Zegart also pointed out that in the Clinton administration, the CIA's budget and workforce were drastically cut back with the end of the Cold War.

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