The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Friday, July 17, 2009

Slamming Shut the Gate

It Wasn’t Assassinating Foreign Terrorists that Rightly Worried Panetta; It Was a Perceived Cover-Up

Eyebrows rose throughout Washington when President-elect Obama nominated Leon Panetta for CIA Director. Although Panetta had extensive government experience as Director of the Office of Management and Budget as well as Chief of Staff in the Clinton Administration, he lacked practical intelligence experience.

The CIA had suffered repeated political bashings in the aftermath of September 11 for intelligence failures. Many felt the CIA needed a CIA person at the helm – someone who understood the agency and would be able to protect it. Panetta was unknown, and therefore distrusted, by many career intelligence officials. The Senate ultimately confirmed him despite these misgivings.

Many now feel such fears were justified. Panetta recently cancelled a heretofore confidential program to assassinate foreign terrorist leaders and immediately ran tattletale to Congress about it. He stands accused of giving Congressional Democrats ammunition against his own agency.

To recap as briefly as possible –

Former President Bush authorized the killing of al-Qaida leaders in 2001 and duly notified Congress. Sometime shortly thereafter, the CIA began initial planning to create and train anti-terrorist assassination teams. The planning dragged along for several years until former CIA Director George Tenet cancelled it in 2004, citing the agency’s inability to work out practical details. The concept had also lost much of its urgency, as the CIA had found foreign intelligence services and missiles launched from unmanned drones could do the job just as well.

Tenet’s successor, Porter Gross, resurrected the teams in 2005. Yet by the time Michael Hayden succeeded Gross in 2006, the program was back in mothballs for the same old logistical problems.

Senior agency officials brought the assassination teams to Panetta’s attention last month because they were finally ready to move beyond planning into a “somewhat more operational phase.” At that point, Panetta permanently killed the concept and informed Congress of its past existence. According to Panetta, the CIA had kept Congress in the dark about the program because then-Vice President Dick Cheney had directly ordered them to do so.

Congressional Democrats, led by Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, expressed their outrage over the program’s secrecy. They accused the CIA of violating the law through their failure to inform and begun tentative consideration of a formal investigation. Congressional Republicans countercharge Democrats of blowing the revelation out of all proportion in order to prop up Speaker of the House Pelosi’s controversial accusations that CIA officials had lied to her during past briefings on interrogation techniques.

Republicans further vilify Democrats as undermining crucial anti-terrorism intelligence gathering by their criticisms of the CIA. “Will anyone go to jail? Probably not. But you will leave a trail of destroyed officers,” predicted one CIA veteran.

Columnist David Ignatius of the Washington Post was one of a handful of voices among pundits originally defending Panetta’s selection at CIA, arguing his previous government posts had given him “tangential exposure” to intelligence operations. He may well have come to regret his endorsement. On Wednesday, he moaned over elected officials “turning the CIA into a political football.” Such actions, admonished Ignatius, were counter to proper Congressional oversight functions. Their only outcome would be to “lacerate [U.S.] intelligence services.”

However, the problem here is not that the CIA was planning to assassinate al-Qaida leaders whenever possible. This was already established policy. Nor was the disclosure of such teams to Congress doomed to make them incapable of carrying out their missions.

Dennis Blair, the Obama Administration's Director of National Intelligence, questioned whether Panetta was legally bound to inform Congress but defended his actions as the right thing to do. Even the CIA officials asking for Panetta’s permission to go forward with assassination teams did so with the recommendation to brief Congress.

I suspect the thing that made Panetta jettison the program so quickly and absolutely had little to do with its nature. Instead, it was the past decision to hide the program purposefully from Congress. Panetta has been around politics long enough to know nothing sets legislators, the press, and the public into a frenzy of suspicion faster than the appearance of a cover-up.

Far too few officials share his savvy on this point. Since the original Watergate scandal in 1974, America has experienced Koreagate in 1976, Billygate in 1979, Debategate in 1980, Irangate/Contragate in 1986, Travelgate, Whitewatergate, and Troopergate I (the Bill Clinton version) in 1993, Filegate in 1996, Monicagate/Lewinskygate/Sexgate/Zippergate in 1998, Plamegate/Leakgate in 2003, Rathergate/Memogate in 2004, Hookergate in 2005, Katrinagate/FEMAgate in 2005, Macacagate in 2006, and NAFTAgate, Troopergate II (the Sarah Palin version), and Blagogate in 2008.

In each of these incidents, the original “crime” often proved to be far less politically damaging – or even proved nonexistent – than the defendants’ subsequent attempts to deny the charges or cover-up any suspicious evidence. It is hard to blame Panetta for attempting to avoid padding the list with Assassingate in 2009.

On Wednesday, in a speech in Michigan, President Obama departed from his scripted remarks to tell the crowd, “I love these folks who helped get us in this mess and then suddenly say, ‘Well, this is Obama's economy.’ That's fine. Give it to me!” Many pundits credited Obama for accepting full ownership for the economy, even if it was likely to come back to haunt him later.

Seven months into his Presidency, ready or not, it is probably more than time for Obama to take ownership for . . . well, everything. One of the things you do when you take over ownership of the farm is to make sure all the gates are shut, so the cattle and other livestock do not go wandering off.

Far from acting against the CIA’s or U.S. intelligence’s best interests, Panetta may well have been acting to protect them from further taints of scandal. He was not being a loyal Democratic partisan by going to Congress so much as a loyal farmhand to his President by slamming shut a potentially damaging open gate.

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