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Treading Softly with the CIA's Panetta

By Melvin A. Goodman
June 25, 2009

Editor’s Note: In Washington, there are invisible boundaries marking how far a political figure or journalist can safely go in pursuing some difficult truth without being tagged as “outside-the-mainstream” or “a true-believer” or some other disqualifying label.

In this guest essay, former CIA analyst Melvin A. Goodman regrets that even one of the finest journalists on the issue of torture – Jane Mayer – and the subject of her recent New Yorker profile, CIA Director Leon Panetta, have both hesitated to push the limits:

For the past several years, we have been indebted to tough-minded reporters such as Jane Mayer, whose articles in the New Yorker and her excellent book The Dark Side have provided us with the necessary details of the transgressions of the Bush administration and the Central Intelligence Agency. 

Her article in the current issue of the New Yorker, however, indicates that Mayer has lost her critical edge and that a Democratic administration will simply not get the scrutiny and skepticism that a Republican administration received.

As Bob Herbert simply stated in today’s New York Times, “Policies that were wrong under George W. Bush are no less wrong because Barack Obama is in the White House.”

Mayer cites various sources, including Rahm Emanuel and former Clinton speechwriter Michael Waldbaum, testifying to Panetta’s “great judgment,” reputation for integrity, and his ability to “restore the integrity of the intelligence process.”

Panetta’s reputation is sterling, but Mayer does not mention that thus far the CIA director has worked to block the release of a sensitive Inspector General report from 2004 that documents the use of torture and abuse; dissuaded President Obama from releasing sensitive photographs that also document torture and abuse; retained all the senior officials of the Agency who were the ideological drivers for the creation of secret prisons and the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques;” and made no effort to replace the Inspector General responsible for the 2004 report who announced his retirement in February 2009, immediately after Panetta’s confirmation.

Mayer cites various “outsiders” who were directors of the CIA, whose tenure was limited because they incurred the wrath of CIA “insiders.” She quotes Waldman who states that “You pick on the CIA at your own peril,” implying that Panetta is just such an outsider who must move carefully or face a very short tenure as CIA director.

The CIA bureaucracy is like any other bureaucracy; it falls into line behind any director. Mayer is simply wrong in implying that the CIA bureaucracy is powerful enough to remove or even weaken an unpopular CIA director.

Her list of so-called outsiders includes James Schlesinger and John Deutch. Schlesinger was appointed to the CIA specifically to make sure that Agency analysis supported the foreign policies of the Nixon administration, particularly on Vietnam.

The CIA bureaucracy was powerless as he eliminated the Office of National Estimates and the Special Research Staff. But his tenure was not limited to six months because of “death threats;” in fact, he was named to the far more important policy position of secretary of defense.

And Deutch left the Agency when it became clear that he would not become secretary of defense. His mishandling of intelligence documents was an egregious offense, involving the potential compromise of Agency clandestine operations; moreover it came to light after he resigned.

Panetta is credited with maintaining Stephen Kappes as the deputy director; Mayer reported that Kappes as “widely admired within the Agency.” She reports that Kappes was opposed to torture but, once overruled, went along with the policy. Her sources for both pieces of information are questionable.
Many Agency officers, in fact, do not admire Kappes, who is considered old-school and hard-line; his role and leadership are controversial within the Agency. Kappes, moreover, was one of the ideological drivers for enhanced interrogation techniques.

By keeping him in place, Panetta has clearly signaled to the Agency rank-and-file that there will be no punishment for senior officials guilty of flawed, if not illegal, policies. As usual, their careers will prosper.

Mayer gives the benefit of the doubt to John Brennan, formerly chief of staff to CIA director George Tenet and President Obama’s first choice as his CIA director. She cites Anthony Lake, who calls Brennan a “really good guy,” and reports that Brennan had no operational control over the interrogation program.

Finally, she reports the canard that Brennan had to withdraw his name from consideration because of a “few Cheeto-eating people in the basement working in their underwear who write blogs” objecting to Brennan as CIA director. Again, Mayer is being disingenuous on the one hand, and cynical on the other. 

While it is true that Brennan was a staffer who had no operational control over policies, he was Tenet’s right-hand man and the Agency’s leading cheerleader in the public arena for enhanced interrogation techniques and the renditions program that led to the torture of innocent Arabs in the prisons and Interior Ministries of Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia.

As Mayer notes, Brennan continues to defend these actions as important to American national security.

In fact, these actions have compromised American national security and, as senior general officers have testified, have been the most effective recruitment tool of the terrorist organizations operating in the Middle East and Southwest Asia.

She also fails to note that Brennan has been part of the culture of cover-up that existed at the CIA for the past three decades, although she does acknowledge that Brennan was probably responsible for persuading Panetta to protest any release of the Justice Department memoranda about the torture program.

The fact that Brennan and Kappes are seen as pleasant personalities and “really good guys” should not earn them a pass when it comes to accountability for the support of torture and abuse.

Mayer gives credit to Panetta for cooperating with the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation of the torture program. She does not mention that Panetta has named former Sen. Warren Rudman, R-New Hampshire, as the director’s special advisor on the committee’s special inquiry.

In 1991, Rudman worked actively and aggressively to block CIA officials from testifying against the nomination of Robert Gates as CIA director and accused the witnesses against Gates of McCarthyism. The appointment of Rudman does not augur well for a policy of openness and transparency.

Those of us who supported Panetta’s candidacy as CIA director were hopeful that he would bring a much-needed era of openness, accountability and credibility to an Agency that has lost its moral compass.

We should have learned during his confirmation hearings, however, as he defended the intelligence that was provided to the White House in the run-up to the Iraq War and testified — incorrectly -- that the intelligence was no different than that provided by other intelligence services around the world. 
He thus ignored or rejected the conclusions of the Senate Intelligence Committee that documented the wholesale misuse of intelligence in June 2008.

Moreover, his failure to name a new, high-powered Inspector General to replace John Helgerson, who announced his retirement more than four months ago, suggests continued efforts to squelch the work of the Office of the Inspector General.

The office has been an anathema to the senior ranks of the Agency because of its critical reports involving the mishandling of 9/11, extraordinary renditions, and enhanced interrogation techniques.

Sadly, all of this was portended at Panetta’s confirmation hearings in February, when he described himself as a “creature of Congress” to a Senate Intelligence Committee that has demonstrated no genuine interest in oversight of the intelligence community and the Central Intelligence Agency.

Melvin A. Goodman, a regular contributor to The Public Record where this essay first appeared, is senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and adjunct professor of government at Johns Hopkins University. He spent more than 42 years in the U.S. Army, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the Department of Defense. His most recent book is Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA.

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