Obama’s First National Security Stumble?

In a national security transition that has generally been given high marks, Barack Obama seems to have stumbled for the first time, at least politically, by picking Leon Panetta to lead the agency.

Interestingly (and perhaps reassuringly for those who might be given to wonder about Obama’s judgment in this matter, given Panetta’s complete lack of intelligence experience), the Los Angeles Times reports that Panetta appears not to have been Obama’s first pick. But the Obama team is now scrambling to defend the pick, not least to members of Congress, including the current and former Democratic chairwoman and chairman, respectively, of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Vice President-elect Joe Biden has admitted it was a mistake not to consult members of Congress ahead of the decision, according to the L.A. Times.

Many current and former intelligence officials, the Washington Post reports, are questioning the choice of a complete intelligence outsider to lead an agency that is suffering from extremely low morale at the moment. (Though a CIA spokesman tells the Post that morale has improved significantly during the tenure of current agency director Michael Hayden.)

Meanwhile, Obama’s comment that the pick is meant to ensure that the agency doesn’t just tell the president “what they think he wants to hear” — apparently a dig at former director George Tenet’s mistakes in characterizing the quality of the agency’s Iraq intelligence — portrays a worrying ignorance of the full picture of the recent history of the agency and its relationship to the White House and the rest of the national security bureaucracy.

In fact, in many ways, the Bush administration and its Pentagon, far from being in bed with the CIA on Iraq intelligence, was at war with them over it. Thus the Pentagon’s creation under Rumsfeld of its own intelligence analysis shop led by then-Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith.

It appears the decision to go with someone that lacks intelligence experience was made in large part out of desire to find someone unconnected in any way with the most controversial aspects of Bush administration intelligence policy, such as aggressive interrogation techniques (or torture), extraordinary rendition, etc.

While its appropriate to make turning the page on past abuses a top priority, however, of equal if not greater urgency for U.S. national security is the ability of the CIA to perform its main mission: intelligence gathering.

That includes not only extending its reach to open source intelligence and improving the quality of its intelligence analysis, but also getting much better at the most basic kind of intelligence gathering: human intelligence. The CIA is the lead agency for so-called HUMINT, which, as opposed to the “technical” means (imagery intelligence, signals intelligence, etc.) that are the primary focus of most other members of the intelligence community (the NSA, NGA, NRO, etc.), is in a poor state at the moment.

If the United States is to effectively deal with al-Qaida and other unconventional and non-state threats to its national security without using techniques that are contrary to U.S. ideals and without bankrupting itself by fighting full-scale wars every couple of years, improving human intelligence — for example, by recruiting and training the kind of person that can pass as a member of al-Qaida — is absolutely essential.

While so far I’ve been generally approving of Obama’s choices on national security, the Panetta pick doesn’t inspire confidence that the Obama team has its intelligence priorities in order. I fear that choosing Panetta indicates it is more worried about political appearances than operational improvement, though I admit the second could be enabled by the first.

For more, see Laura Rozen’s reporting at Foreign Policy, David Ignatius’ defense of the Panetta pick, and Steve Coll’s New Yorker piece, in which he also worries about the state of the clandestine service.

More World Politics Review