Entry from January 6, 2009

According to The Washington PostBarack Obama has “stunned the national intelligence community by selecting Clinton White House chief of staff Leon E. Panetta, a longtime Washington insider with little intelligence experience, to serve as the next head of the CIA.” Though he is “widely regarded as a good manager who knows the government bureaucracy well,” Mr Panetta does not inspire confidence in fellow Democratic Senators Jay Rockefeller and Dianne Feinstein, respectively the outgoing and incoming chairmen of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Ranking Republican Christopher Bond is also a skeptic, observing that “In a post-9/11 world, intelligence experience would seem to be a prerequisite for the job of CIA director.” Not that anyone is likely to care very much about what he thinks.

But the Post points out that the President-elect has “had trouble filling the CIA slot in part because other candidates were perceived as tainted for having supported aspects of the Bush administration”s interrogation and intelligence programs.” According to The New York Times, the first pick for the job, John O. Brennan, “had to withdraw his name amid criticism over his alleged role in the formation of the agency’s detention and interrogation program after the Sept. 11 attacks.” Another candidate, Democratic representative Jane Harman, formerly senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, “was considered but was ruled out due to her early support for Bush’s warrantless-search program” says Steve Benen in The Washington Monthly’s “Political Animal” blog.

In my essay, “The Mystification of Change” in the current issue of The New Criterion, I proposed that the surprising but widely-hailed “moderation” or “pragmatism” of Mr Obama’s early appointments were a concession made to reality by a man who had hitherto lived and moved and had his being exclusively in the unreal world of campaign rhetoric. Now we see the limits of such pragmatism. If reality involves adopting Bushite methods when it comes to what, for campaigning purposes, the left has been indiscriminately labeling “torture,” then reality can go take a hike. Laura Rozen blogging on behalf of Foreign Policy magazine says that “a former senior CIA manager” characterized the appointment to her as follows: “The message is, ‘I don”t want to hear anything out of the CIA. Make it go away. No scandals. Keep it quiet.’”

On the other hand, she goes on to quote Greg Treverton of the Rand Corporation as saying that “Panetta”s experience as a former White House chief of staff might give him a unique understanding of the presidency and its needs for intelligence” — needs which have not hitherto been thought of as recondite to all but the most finely-tuned “understanding.” Reading between the lines of this and similar comments, I think what they are really saying is that mastery of the bureaucracy and of bureaucratic in-fighting, such as Mr Panetta possesses, is of more importance to a DCI in our post-9/11 world than knowledge of our enemies and potential enemies. If so, this is a further ramification of the scandal I point to in my book, Media Madness: The Corruption of Our Political Culture, which is that the CIA under President Bush has shown itself to be a rogue agency that has broken free from proper accountability to its political masters. This too, it seems, is a form of reality with which our new President is having to come to terms.

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