Leon Panetta? Say It Ain't So

Leon Panetta? Seriously? Why not Leon Spinks ... maybe Leon Russell? How about the Kings of Leon? I’d drag this out longer but can’t think of any other famous Leons.

Thinking of a famous Leon is like trying to name famous Belgians … there’s Hercules Poirot, Eddie the old bicycle racing guy who’s last name is a mosh pit of consonants, and then, nothing. Perhaps PWB readers can come up with more famous Leons, but I’m stumped.

The news that President-elect Obama has chosen former Congressman and Clinton White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta to replace Michael Hayden as CIA Director has been met with lots of head scratching, concern and dismay from those who respect the agency and what it stands for, and moist excitement from those on the left who wouldn’t know a threat or covert operation if it crawled up their backside.

I mentioned in a previous PDB that it would be a shame if the Obama team decided to play politics with the CIA appointment. At the time I said that they should keep Hayden, or select one of the several well qualified candidates with extensive knowledge of intelligence and counterterrorism. Being skeptical, I suggested this was not likely to happen.

The far left whined over the past many weeks that the CIA nominee had to be someone with no connection to the past administration and the rendition/interrogation policies that they say are leading us straight to hell. As anyone with a toddler at home can tell you, whining, when done loudly and shrilly enough, actually does work.

And so Obama has thrown them a bone. Ooh wait… Leon Redbone. Score.

What’s the word on the street for Panetta? Well, he’s known as a strong manager, good with budgets and friendly with folks up on Capitol Hill. Senator Harry Reid called Panetta “… one of the finest public servants I have ever served with and dealt with since he left the White House.”

Panetta was an eight term congressman, ran the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) during the Clinton Administration and also served as Chief of Staff for President Clinton. Lately he’s been running a think tank.

You can read the previous paragraph as many times as you want but you won’t find any references to intelligence committees, experience with the intelligence community or anything else that would imply expertise or knowledge of the job for which he’s now nominated.

And that, faithful PDB readers, is exactly why Obama considers him qualified for the job. He’s untainted by experience. There is no CIA stink on this guy… he’s blemish free. Huzzah.

In what may be the most entertaining and telling tidbit of the day, the good folks over at Human Rights Watch praised the selection of Panetta. Excellent. At last we’ve got a guy over at the agency that the far left can get behind.

Now don’t get me wrong. Panetta’s experiences will certainly speak to some aspects of the job. The DCI needs strong managerial skills, an excellent understanding of how the government works and, importantly, the ability to work closely with members of Congress.

In the days before the restructuring of the intel community, the most important factor determining the effectiveness of a CIA Director was his ties and level of access to the president. While still important, it is less critical now that the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) runs the show.

But all in all, color me underwhelmed. Underwhelmed and disappointed. Wait, give me three descriptive words… underwhelmed, disappointed and pessimistic.

Underwhelmed that those praising the selection cite Panetta's management and budget skills as the primary qualifications. Disappointed that the selection was heavily influenced by people who distrust or overtly hate the agency. And pessimistic that the agency will still have big brass ones this time next year.

Democratic Senator Ron Wyden from Oregon called Panetta a “…strong choice who has the skills to usher in a new era of accountability at the nation’s premier intelligence agency.” Accountability. As if the CIA isn’t already the most transparent intelligence service on the planet.

Accountability? No offense, but you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting an intelligence committee, subcommittee, panel, special review board, commission or investigative research group crawling up the agency’s patooty looking for some other reason to perform a CIA neuterectomy.

What about those qualified candidates? Please. You think Obama wants to deal with crap from the far left this early in the game? It’s bad enough he kept Robert Gates over at Defense. All the far left had to do was yell “torture,” “rendition” or “Bush-Cheney cabal” and one by one the candidates who’ve had anything to do with the CIA over the past eight years fell by the wayside.

I’ve said many times that I admire how the left has captured the interrogation debate by framing it as all or nothing. In their world, there are no aggressive techniques. Everything beyond chatting or perhaps casting a cross look is considered torture. So, in their world, the agency supports torture because they want the ability, in select cases, to turn to techniques that are more aggressive than what is laid out in the Army Field Manual.

Let’s be clear. You would be hard pressed to break the average crafty teenager with techniques from the Army Field Manual. Talking, playing on their feelings and emotions, limiting access to the PlayStation, maybe forcing them to do some chores… all well and good if you’ve got unlimited amounts of time and aren’t too worried about pulling potentially critical time-sensitive operational information out of a hardened, uncooperative, high-value target.

The country faces a ruthless enemy that has no morals, no limits and no concern for our rights. While we shouldn’t and don’t stoop to their level by any means, we should reserve the right, when absolutely necessary, to use some techniques that, while not pleasant, don’t constitute torture.

We subject our own personnel to these techniques for training purposes. Does that mean we’re guilty of torturing U.S. government and military personnel? I don’t know, how about we form a special commission to investigate and prepare a report?

And by the way, how comforting will it be to the enemy when they know that everything they could possibly face in an interrogation is laid out for them in the field manual, a copy of which will undoubtedly be passed out to every Al Qaeda recruit.

The initial reaction to Panetta’s selection has been interesting. Democratic Senators Feinstein and Rockefeller, both with years of experience on intelligence committees, expressed serious concerns about Panetta’s qualifications. I believe this is the first time that I’ve found myself on the same sheet of music as Senator Feinstein.

At the same time, former CIA Director John Deutch, himself an unusual choice during the Clinton years, has praised the Panetta nomination. George Tenet, former CIA Director under both Presidents Clinton and Bush, called it “…a great choice.” And John McLaughlin, a well respected CIA veteran and former No. 2 at the agency, suggested that Panetta would be a strong director, in part due to his ties to Congress and knowledge of government machinations.

OK. If he’s approved -- and what are the odds that Capitol Hill won’t approve a nomination from Obama? -- let’s hope the former senior agency managers are right and I’m wrong. If so, I promise to look straight into the camera and say “I am not smarter than a former CIA Director.”

On the other hand, if Leon Panetta ushers in a new era of risk aversion, similar to the Clinton years when they tried to make the CIA wear a dress and answer to the name of Nancy, I’ll look straight into the camera and say, “What a load of crap.”

Wait, I got another famous Leon… Trotsky. Now there’s a pick the far left could really get behind.

As always, we welcome your comments, thoughts and insight.

Send your e-mails to peoplesweeklybrief@hotmail.com.

Till next week, stay safe.

Mike Baker served for more than 15 years as a covert field operations officer for the Central Intelligence Agency, specializing in counterterrorism, counternarcotics and counterinsurgency operations around the globe. Since leaving government service, he has been a principal in building and running several companies in the private intelligence, security and risk management sector and has recently returned to Diligence LLC, a company he cofounded in 2000, as President. He appears frequently in the media as an expert on counterterrorism, intelligence and homeland security. Baker is also a partner in Classified Trash, a film and television production company. Baker serves as a script consultant, writer and technical adviser within the entertainment industry, lending his expertise to such programs as the BBC's popular spy series "Spooks," as well as major motion pictures.

Mike Baker is the Co-Founder of Diligence LLC, a leading global intelligence, security and risk management firm. Prior to starting Diligence, Mike spent over a decade and half with the CIA as a covert field operations officer. He is a regular contributor in the national and international media on intelligence, security, counterterrorism and political issues. He appears regularly on Fox News, as well as other major media outlets.