If Leon Panetta had been a half-decent director of the Central Intelligence Agency or a half-decent secretary of defense, then his ironically-titled “Worthy Fights” could have been viewed as a credible critique of the national security policy of the Obama administration. The fact of the matter is that Panetta had his own worthy fights to encounter at both the CIA and the Pentagon, but he dodged them all. He became an immediate and willing captive of the operational culture of the CIA and the military culture of the Pentagon. And to make certain that the serious problems at both bureaucracies would remain hidden, he destroyed the oversight process at the CIA and weakened the oversight process at the Pentagon.
First of all, Panetta may be taken seriously by the mainstream media, but he was never taken seriously by the senior bureaucrats and officers at the CIA and the Pentagon. Panetta was referred to by the senior operational officers as “Uncle Leon” because of his indolent working habits and his lack of experience in both operational and intelligence matters. The fact that Panetta brought his dog to work on a daily basis was a subject of derision, although not a serious matter. The fact that he flew home to California virtually every weekend was a serious matter. By the way, the dog went to work in the Pentagon, and the regular flights at taxpayer expense continued there as well.
Panetta’s first tests as a CIA director occurred in his first year at the Agency; he failed both tests miserably. In December 2009, a young Nigerian boarded a commercial airliner with explosives and a key CIA facility in Afghanistan was hit by a suicide bomber. Both events represented major intelligence and operational failures; both events revealed the failure of trade craft in both the directorates of intelligence and operations. In the case of the Afghan bombing, the blame resided at the highest levels of the National Clandestine Service, but Panetta praised the work of the clandestine service and no one was held accountable or even responsible.
In the case of the bombing of the most important CIA facility in Afghanistan, the base had been turned over to an inexperienced and unprepared CIA officer. Too many CIA officers were exposed to the suicide bomber, and the bomber had not been properly vetted. In any event, the bomber himself should never have been permitted to enter such a sensitive facility. In my experience at the CIA–24 years–in dealing with such operations, safe houses were used in order to reduce the risk of loss or compromise. The trade craft in this case was abysmal but Panetta praised the work of his senior operational leaders in an op-ed in the “Wall Street Journal.”
Panetta also managed to harm the CIA in an even more fundamental way by undermining and compromising the work of the Office of the Inspector General. His immediate successors had tried to achieve this, particularly Porter Goss and General Michael Hayden, but it was Panetta who pulled the switch. A former colleague of mine, John Helgerson, was the inspector general during the Bush years and tried to stand up to the efforts of Goss and Hayden, but believed that it was safe to retire in 2009 when a Democratic administration came into power and a supposedly decent civil servant and public official such as Panetta was named director of CIA. Well, Helgerson put his money on the wrong horse.
Panetta knew that the National Clandestine Service and such former directors as Goss, Hayden, and particularly George Tenet were angry at the outstanding, but ultimately embarrassing, work of the OIG, particularly its exposures of such intelligence failures as the 9/11 attacks, the shootdown and coverup of a missionary plane over Peru, and the unconscionable acts of erroneous detentions as well as torture and abuse. Panetta placed the OIG in the hands of a bureaucratic lightweight, David Buckley, who had no interest in investigating and dissecting the serious transgressions of the National Clandestine Service. President Obama made a major contribution to this mess by waiting more than a year and a half to even display any interest in nominating a successor to Helgerson.
The current brouhaha over the CIA’s efforts to compromise the oversight work of the Senate intelligence committee is a direct result of Panetta’s campaign against legitimate oversight. Panetta killed the internal oversight of the CIA that was in the hands of the Office of the Inspector General; CIA director John Brennan is currently trying to kill the external oversight of the CIA that is by law in the hands of the Senate intelligence committee. Thus far, President Obama has totally ignored Brennan’s challenge to the Constitution and the separation of powers.
One of the reasons why then secretary of defense Bob Gates wanted Panetta as his successor at the Pentagon was because he knew there would be no attempt to challenge or confront the uniformed military’s command of the building. The author of his own self-serving memoir, “Duty,” Gates was guilty of allowing senior officers at the Pentagon to lobby for increased forces in Afghanistan. Time and again, the Pentagon’s senior leaders, particularly Admiral Mike Mullen and Generals David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal made public comments or leaked controversial statements that were designed to force greater military deployments to Afghanistan, when it was clear that the president was wisely looking for a way out. Panetta similarly pandered to the military culture and did not establish proper civilian control over the Pentagon.
The Washington press corps relishes memoirs such as Gates’s and Panetta’s because they are vivid, colloquial, and seemingly straight-from-the-shoulder. These memoirs receive considerable attention because they contain criticism of the sitting president, offering fodder for money and easy money in the bank for their authors. The fact that these memoirs are self-serving, duplicitous, arrogant, and even venal requires some analysis and explanation, which the mainstream media too often abhors. And the fact that these memoirs attack a president who is trying to reduce the power of the Pentagon and temper the use of military force gives such op-ed writers and armchair warriors as Michael Gerson and Charles Krauthammer of the Washington Post, let alone my favorite pair of boom-boom senators, John McCain and Lindsay Graham, more grist for their anachronistic mills.
Melvin A. Goodman is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and adjunct professor of government at Johns Hopkins University. His 42-year government career includes tours with the US Army, the CIA, the Department of State, and the Department of Defense. His most recent books are “The Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA” and “National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism”