Counterterrorism expert John O. Brennan was reportedly Obama's original choice for director of the CIA, but he withdrew from consideration after complaints about his past involvement in Bush-era interrogation programs. Now, Obama has appointed Brennan as deputy national security adviser for homeland security--a White House position best described as "counter-terrorism czar"--and has selected Leon Panetta to head the CIA, where he will be subordinate to the Director of National Intelligence, Admiral Dennis Blair.
To get some perspective on these appointments, I contacted Richard A. Clarke, the last person to hold a position comparable to Brennan's in the White House.
On why Obama would want to keep Brennan close, despite the bad feelings many on the left have for him:
Can you name someone who knows more about counter-terrorism than John Brennan? I think John has very recent operational experience. He did a great job running the National Counter-Terrorism Center. He has extensive history at the CIA. He knows as much about terrorism as anyone I know, from an operational perspective.
I think John decided to pull himself out [of the running for CIA director] largely because he didn't want to go through the public ritual of being attacked during the nomination process and perhaps becoming a distraction. In the NSC jobs, you don't have to get nominated or confirmed. You just have to walk in on day one.
On whether it's better to have Brennan or Panetta running the CIA:
I think it's a much better allocation of people to have Brennan as the terror czar and Panetta as director of the CIA. People think of the CIA as a counter-terrorism organization, but their chief function is analysis and collection of intelligence. ... I think Panetta is a better choice.
On Panetta's qualifications:
I keep hearing that Blair and Panetta don't have any intelligence experience. They do. They have the best kind of intelligence experience. They've been the highest of the high of intelligence consumers. As OMB director, Panetta had all the tickets--which very few people do--to know about all the secret programs of all the intelligence agencies. As commander of the Pacific Fleet, Blair had the Joint Intelligence Center Pacific (JICPAC), which encompasses our intelligence assets in the Pacific, reporting directly to him.
On Panetta's ability to work with Adm. Dennis Blair:
You have to remember that the CIA is like 20 percent of the intelligence community. Once you have an adult in charge at the CIA who has his own standing on the Hill and in the White House, that will free up the DNI to concentrate on the rest of the intelligence community where, frankly, we need more managerial focus.
[As for the CIA], it's not really as much about reform as it is about relevance. CIA analysts can get somewhat divorced from reality, and they're frankly late to the table with information that's relevant to policymakers. Panetta can be the bridge that gets the right type of information delivered in a timely fashion--and at the same time, I think Panetta will defend his analysts and stand up for them so they'll feel free to tell the truth. That wasn't always happening during the Bush administration.