It's almost impossible to find someone to trash Leon Panetta, the old Washington hand Barack Obama wants to install at the helm of the CIA. Soft-spoken yet firm, with a winningly hangdog face, Panetta combines judiciousness with a disarming sense of humor that soothes colleagues and reporters alike, making him that rare Washington big shot who has almost never been the target of a hit piece. But dig deep into Panetta's biography and you'll find one man who despises him: Dick Morris.
In the summer of 1995, Panetta was locked in an intense battle with Bill Clinton's notorious political consultant. Panetta was Clinton's chief of staff and working hard to limit the Machiavellian Morris's access to the president's ear. Panetta loathed Morris. He felt the blow-dried operative cared only about poll numbers, not the national interest. (Some White House aides joked that, if he could have, Morris would have had the president propose a national "511" number for Americans to get speedy Chinese food.) Panetta had sought to ban Morris from the West Wing, even putting out an all-points bulletin to staff asking that he be notified of any "Morris sightings." "There was a battle of wills there," says one former Clinton White House aide.
Morris, who didn't respond to my messages, later recounted that battle in a self-serving memoir. But the book curiously winds up spotlighting the integrity of his nemesis. In one anecdote, Morris recalls a key 1995 meeting with Clinton in which Panetta put his foot down. "Mr. President," Panetta declared, "you can have my resignation before I will allow half-baked ideas to make it out of this building, before the experts who have spent their lives working in these areas have a chance to review them and modify them to make them work. We cannot just turn the White House staff and the Cabinet over to a political consultant." Recorded by Panetta, those words would sound grandiose and self-serving. Coming from his arch-rival, they are credible--even stirring.
That's not, to say the least, a bad thing for a guy taking over an agency that has been subject to political assault and manipulation. But, as he prepares to enter his new job, Panetta has for the first time found himself under heavy political fire. His critics say he'll be hobbled by a lack of experience analyzing intelligence and little familiarity with the agency's often messy covert operations. In a sense, the criticisms of Panetta go back to the original reason that he had so few enemies to begin with--and perhaps the reason Obama chose him for the post: He is the consummate Washington wise man--judicious, relentlessly pragmatic, occasionally clubby. But is the CIA any place for wise men?
While some Obama boosters have called Panetta an "inspired" choice, he was in fact a backup candidate. Obama originally wanted the career agency hand John Brennan for the job. But the civil-liberties left furiously accused Brennan--on the basis of tenuous evidence--of complicity with recent CIA torture and rendition practices, leaving Obama scrambling. He landed upon Panetta, who, as a former congressman, White House chief of staff, corporate board-sitter, quotable pundit, co-founder (with his wife) of a California public policy institute, and familiar member of worthy blue-ribbon panels, sent a reassuring message of Washington wisdom and know-how. Equally important, Panetta had stated his categorical opposition to torture "under any circumstances."
Panetta will take over the CIA at a time when its frontline intelligence agency is in disarray, run roughshod by Washington politics. First came the White House pressure over Iraq's WMD and alleged links to Al Qaeda, George Tenet's infamous "slam dunk" assurance, and the demoralizing outing of Valerie Plame. Then came the exposure of manufactured evidence from such bogus sources as the alcoholic liar "Curveball." Next came scandals over torture and secret prisons, followed by calls for accountability from congressional liberals. Meanwhile, Panetta will become the agency's fourth director in six years, during which time the agency was also effectively demoted by sweeping intelligence reform that put it under the aegis of a new Director of National Intelligence (DNI), fostering bitterness within the agency. Moreover, as former CIA assistant director Mark Lowenthal notes, recent retirements plus an influx of post-September 11 volunteers means that the agency's staff "is probably less experienced now than at any other time."
In short, the CIA is in dire need of some calm and stability. And stability is a Panetta forte. In mid-1994, Panetta, then White House budget director and a former California representative, was named Clinton's chief of staff and tasked with imposing discipline on the young and inexperienced Clinton team. The West Wing had no structure, with aides wandering in and out of the Oval Office; Clinton's presidency was foundering. "The West Wing was dysfunctional and a mess, and Panetta was brought in to straighten things out," explains one staffer from the time. Panetta had no personal ties to Clinton or his inner circle, and many Clinton aides initially felt threatened. But Panetta's two-and-a-half-year tenure--a model of order and discipline--was widely seen as a success. "He came in to a hostile situation and, by and large, won over the affection and loyalty of the staff," says the aide.
In some ways, the CIA needs the same handling. Amazingly, in light of what we know about the failure to stop the September 11 plot, the intelligence community still struggles with core tasks like information-sharing between the FBI and CIA. By many accounts, the agency is also infused with resentment among career employees toward the DNI's office, to which the CIA director now reports. One senior Democratic lawmaker says a key element of Panetta's mission will be to "stop the CIA-DNI feud."
Maybe most important will be for Panetta to resume his role resisting politicized policy. This was the position he occupied as a young chief of Richard Nixon's civil rights office in 1970, which he quit rather than become a part of Nixon's racialized "Southern strategy." As a budget baron in Congress, and as Clinton's first budget director, he was known for his green-eyeshade rigor. Not only did he tell Clinton to his face that his friend Dick Morris was a menace, but, when the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke in 1997, Panetta (then out of the White House) was among the few Clintonites who dared suggest that Clinton might need to resign. "He's a no-bullshit guy," says longtime friend and former Republican senator Alan Simpson.
Since Obama tapped him for the job, critics have mocked Panetta's lack of experience within the intelligence establishment. But the fiasco over pre-war intelligence about Iraq's WMD program--the "slam dunk" that wasn't--underscores the importance of having a rigorous empiricist at the helm of the agency. "The thread that runs through his career is integrity," says Erick Mullen, a longtime former aide to Panetta.
Still, if Panetta thrives as a stabilizing force, he may not have the vision and imagination the CIA now needs. Establishment Men tend to succeed by virtue of a certain caution. Since leaving Washington, Panetta has charted a comfortable path of TV appearances and corporate boards. He sat on the board of the New York Stock Exchange in 2003, when its compensation committee approved an obscene $140 million bonus for the NYSE's embattled chairman, Richard Grasso. (The $15,000 that Panetta's California think tank had taken from the stock exchange's foundation suggested a classic bit of elite logrolling.) Panetta also served on the Iraq Study Group, that ultimate gathering of "wise men" whose near-hopeless view of the war more accurately captured public opinion than reality on the ground.
This kind of complacency is already plaguing the CIA, which time and again has failed to adjust to new conditions and alignments. The agency has been painfully slow to find ways to handle post-Soviet adversaries like Iran, North Korea, and Islamic extremist groups. The 2005 Silberman-Robb commission, in its comprehensive assessment of the U.S. intelligence establishment, lamented a lack of new thinking in the CIA's Directorate of Operations--and even recommended a new CIA "Innovation Center" to find new approaches. "The best hope for preventing future [intelligence] failures is dramatic change," the commission found, calling for a spy establishment that is "far more imaginative and willing to run risks."
And it is in addressing this issue that where Panetta's stability could prove his Achilles' heel. Panetta, Morris observed, "respected the institutions of government, the established protocols of process, and abhorred circumvention. He mistrusted spontaneity. ... He just was the establishment." In a pinch, this Establishment Man can bring calm and order. But, when it comes to modernizing the CIA, the Establishment may be just what the agency does not need.