The Disappointing Leon Panetta
Editor’s Note: When President Barack Obama picked former White House chief of staff Leon Panetta to head the CIA, there was hope among reformers that Panetta would lead the way toward cleaning up the spy agency and assessing some accountability for torture and other abuses of the Bush-Cheney era.
Instead, however, Panetta has protected the CIA’s bureaucratic interests and opposed releasing documentary evidence of torture and other crimes, as former CIA analyst Melvin A. Goodman notes in this guest essay:
CIA Director Leon Panetta is continuing the culture of cover-up that has plagued the Agency for the past three decades, ever since William Casey and Robert Gates collaborated in the 1980s to hide the crimes of Iran-Contra and to politicize sensitive intelligence.
Panetta was expected to introduce an era of transparency and accountability to the CIA, but he has been a major disappointment, refusing to remove any of the senior officials responsible for policies that led to secret prisons, extraordinary renditions, and torture and abuse.
Currently, he is doing the bidding of the most reactionary elements of the CIA by supporting the heavy redaction of the Inspector General’s report of 2004, which is the most authoritative account on record of the Agency’s interrogation practices and the use of torture and abuse against detainees.
In addition to blocking the release of an authoritative version of the IG report, Panetta has established his own review group within the Agency on interrogation practices and has filled it with operational officials from the National Clandestine Service and lawyers from the Office of the General Counsel.
These were the lawyers who petitioned the Office of Legal Counsel for immunity in the conduct of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques.
Panetta has also announced that former Sen. Warren Rudman, R-New Hampshire, would be the director’s special advisor on the Senate Intelligence Committee’s special inquiry of past practices in terrorist detention and interrogation. In 1991, Rudman worked actively to block CIA officials from testifying against the nomination of Gates as CIA director.
Panetta, moreover, has demonstrated no concern with the CIA’s destruction of nearly 100 interrogation videotapes, which was investigated by the FBI but has thus far led to no indictments and no information for the general public.
Clandestine officials have a great interest in making sure that the Senate Intelligence Committee does not receive the worst of the evidence from the investigation.
By placing Rudman as an intermediary between the review group and the Senate Intelligence Committee, Panetta has ensured himself that the most damaging information will never see the light of day. The chairman of the Intelligence Committee, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, has shown no interest in aggressive oversight of the intelligence community.
Delay on IG Choice
Finally, Panetta has not supported the nomination of a new Inspector General to replace John Helgerson, who authorized the 2004 report and had become a bête noire to three former CIA directors, George Tenet, Porter Goss and Michael Hayden.
Panetta should be supporting the nomination of a lawyer with outstanding credentials, such as the Justice Department’s Glenn Fine, who would aggressively pursue wrongdoing at the CIA. Panetta’s failure to name a new IG indicates that he supports the policy of using the lawyers of the Office of the General Counsel to monitor and restrain the Office of the Inspector General.
Again, Feinstein has made no effort to install a statutory IG at the CIA.
Those CIA directors, particularly William Colby and Stansfield Turner, who tried to deal forthrightly with the Agency’s sordid past have always earned the enmity of the National Clandestine Service, formerly the Directorate of Operations.
Colby assembled the “Family Jewels” or the “Skeletons,” which described the illegal activities of the CIA in Chile against the Allende government and in the United States during the Vietnam War. Colby’s “Family Jewels” and Seymour Hersh’s story on the CIA’s illegal domestic activities led to the Hughes-Ryan Amendment that required the President to report CIA covert actions to the congressional oversight committees.
But when Rep. Michael Harrington, D-Massachusetts, leaked word of the Chilean operation, he was denied further access to the files of the oversight committee, which may explain why congressmen do not deal openly with CIA transgressions.
One congressman who has dealt openly with a serious CIA transgression, Peter Hoekstra, R-Michigan, has received no support from his congressional colleagues in pursuing the CIA cover-up of shoot-down of a missionary plane in Peru that led to the deaths of a missionary and her seven-month-old daughter.
Again, a report from John Helgerson documented the CIA ‘s failure to follow presidential orders controlling the operation. The intelligence committees have similarly demonstrated no interest in pursuing CIA killings of innocent civilians in Yemen, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Unfortunately, there is ample precedent for installing CIA directors who then become a captive of the clandestine culture and very resistant to any policy of openness or glasnost.
Bill Casey and his deputy, Bob Gates, made sure that the White House would be firmly in control of the intelligence and informational bases of foreign policy. Both Casey and Gates dissembled often before the congressional intelligence committees.
Gates’s role in covering-up his knowledge of Iran-Contra forced him to withdraw his nomination as CIA director in 1987, and his politicization of intelligence persuaded more than 30 senators to vote against his nomination in 1991, though he was confirmed.
As CIA director, Gates (along with his immediate successors) wittingly took part in sending clandestine intelligence to the White House that had been manipulated by the Soviet Union and Russia and designed to deceive the United States.
Other CIA directors, including James Schlesinger, Goss, Hayden and George Tenet, were political directors cut from the same cloth as Casey and Gates. Tenet made a special effort to cover-up the CIA’s mishandling of intelligence on the Soviet Union, which led to the failure to record the decline and fall of the USSR.
Panetta could learn a great deal from Bill Colby, who explained that the “Agency’s survival could only come from understanding, not hostility, built on knowledge, not faith.” Sadly, Panetta appears to be cut from different cloth.
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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