The CIA in Transition

Barack Obama’s appointment of an intelligence outsider as the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency signals a break with Bush-era intelligence policy. If the Obama administration allows intelligence to rank low on their list of priorities, however, they risk neglecting the acute threat that both terrorism and traditional espionage pose to the US today.

By Dr Kevin Quinlan, RUSI United States

The selection of Leon Panetta as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (DCIA) has left many in Washington scratching their heads. While Panetta has a wealth of experience on Capitol Hill – as a former Democratic Congressman, a former Director of the Office of Management and Budget, and former Chief of Staff under Bill Clinton – many have raised questions about his suitability for the post because of his lack of experience in the intelligence field.

Senator Diane Feinstein, incoming chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, numbered among those who quickly expressed doubts. ‘My position has consistently been that I believe the agency is best served by having an intelligence professional in charge at this time,’ she said.[1] Feinstein’s scepticism may have been in protest at the Obama team’s failure to consult key congressional leaders prior to the selection, yet her sentiment captured the thoughts of many. Following a lengthy conversation with an apparently contrite Obama, Feinstein subsequently told CNN that she would endorse Panetta’s nomination and claimed that he would ‘tell truth to power’.[2]

In naming an outsider to head the CIA, Obama is signalling a break with Bush-era intelligence controversies such as domestic electronic intercepts and enhanced interrogation methods. Some see the agency's previous director General Michael Hayden as being too close to the Bush administration. After the fallout surrounding the faulty National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iraq, the ‘politicisation of intelligence’ became a hot topic. It is all the more curious, then, that Obama has chosen a historically partisan figure. The last openly partisan figure to head the CIA was Porter Goss, who oversaw what many regard as one of the lowest points in the Agency’s history. In this reading, naming a career civil servant rather than a former politician might have spared the CIA further criticism about its political neutrality.

On the other hand, Panetta’s familiarity with the ways of Washington may prove an asset. As David Ignatius of the Washington Post recently wrote, ‘Panetta is a Washington heavyweight with the political clout to protect the agency and help it rebuild after a traumatic eight years under George Bush, when it became a kind of pincushion.’[3] History has shown that nothing is worse for the CIA than estrangement from its customers, and the White House in particular. When a light airplane hit the White House in 1994, it became a well-worn Washington joke that it was probably CIA Director James Woolsey attempting to meet with President Clinton.[4]

Panetta’s political experience could help the CIA repair its relations with Congress, which, according to most accounts, have suffered over the last eight years. In endorsing Panetta, John McLaughlin, a former Deputy-Director of the CIA, noted that ‘an effective relationship with congressional overseers [is] a key part of the intelligence equation’.[5] Of course, operational effectiveness is another key part of the equation. If Stephen Kappes (a career case officer) and Michael Morell (an old Asia hand) stay on as CIA’s number two and three respectively, it would provide the competency and continuity the Agency is said to need after years of turmoil. Thus the best-case scenario would have the combination of a politically savvy DCIA with the confidence of the executive and legislative branches and seasoned CIA managers with the confidence of the CIA rank and file.

One of the greatest challenges facing Panetta and Admiral Dennis Blair – the putative Director of National Intelligence (DNI) – will be the clarification of what many deem to be an ambiguous DCIA-DNI relationship. Since its creation in 2004, many have criticised the rapid growth of the Office of the DNI (ODNI), which now numbers some 1500 employees, for having ballooned into an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy performing redundant tasks – precisely the opposite of what the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 was supposed to achieve. This dual leadership – DNI as head of the community, DCIA as head of the National Clandestine Service (NCS) – has also complicated relationships with foreign intelligence services.[6] Recent reports suggest that the reform-minded Blair may slim down the DNI.[7] Clearly delineating authority between these two positions will go some way in smoothing how the intelligence community as a whole functions.

The relatively late selection of Panetta and Blair may bode ill for the intelligence community. If the previous announcements of Obama’s policy teams indicate his administration’s priorities, intelligence ranks low on the list. Pundits hailed the swift assembly of notables to devise an economic recovery plan. Next came the key foreign policy and defence positions (Senator Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, Susan Rice as Ambassador to the UN, Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense, and General Jim Jones as National Security Advisor). Until now, the DCIA and DNI positions on Obama’s roster were notably vacant. The delay in naming a DCIA and DNI may have been simply for political rather than strategic reasons. However, this, in turn, suggests that intelligence will remain mired in politics as usual, even as both the executive and legislative branches are held by Democrats.

Obama will disregard the intelligence community at the country’s peril. America has not suffered a terrorist attack since 9/11, and is at risk of forgetting the acute threat that both terrorism and traditional espionage pose. The militant Islamism that resulted in the destruction of the twin towers did not spring forth as a fully armed Athena when George W. Bush assumed the Presidency – it had historical antecedents. Regardless of who takes the helm at CIA, it will remain Obama’s responsibility to set the agenda and to effectively task the nation’s intelligence services to tackle the threats of the future.

The views expressed above are the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.


1. Anne E Kornblut and Joby Warrick, ‘Panetta chosen as CIA Director’, Washington Post, Tuesday 6 January, A4.

2. Ted Barrett, ‘Feinstein now supports Panetta for CIA Director’,, last accessed 7 Jan 2009.

3. David Ignatius, ‘A Surprise for Langley’, Washington Post, Wednesday 7 January 2009, A15.

4. Asla Aydintasbas, ‘The midnight ride of James Woolsey’,, last accessed 8 January 2009.

5. Kornblut and Warrick, ‘Panetta chosen as CIA Director’, A4.

6. These frequent allegations were well summarised by a former CIA Deputy Director of Operations, Jack Devine, ‘An Intelligence Reform Reality Check’, Washington Post, Monday 18 February 2008, A17.

7. Dana Priest, ‘Blair is Steeped in the Ways Intelligence Works’, Washington Post, Saturday 20 December 2008, A4.


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