Wheels within wheels

The debate over Leon Panetta’s selection to run the CIA continues. I don’t find the selection problematic on its face. The CIA’s high profile assessments have become, and will remain, hopelessly intertwined with politics. Thus, having a smart, politically savvy guy like Panetta in charge makes sense. To be sure, the CIA also does a great deal of low profile, but very important intelligence gathering. But I see no reason why that function would be impaired by the absence of a director without experience in the field.

The quality of the agency’s ntelligence gathering would seem to be a function of its financial resources, the quality of its intelligence staff, and the state of morale. Would Panetta be bad for morale? The answer probably depends on how he conducts himself when he assumes office, not whether he has intelligence experience.

The quality of CIA intelligence gathering can also be a function of what means the agency is prepared to use — e.g., various surveillance methods and, in extreme cases, enhanced interrogation. Panetta may be a bad choice because he will not be sufficiently aggressive (though who really knows). If so, this probably won’t be because he lacks an intelligence background. The divide on these matters exists both among those with such a background and those without it.

But all of this is just my surmise as an outsider. The views of those with intelligence experience should count for much more. Nor is there any shortage of reports about such views.

The problem is that these “sources” almost surely have their own agendas. There are the “career professionals,” the military types, the hawks, the doves, the folks who would like the CIA to be more influential, the folks who want it to be marginalized or even scuttled, the folks who want Obama to succeed, the folks who are indiferent about this or maybe even would like him to fail, and God knows who else.

Without knowing the agenda of a “source,” or at least the categories within which he or she falls, it is impossible to make real sense of that source’s point of view. It would probably take another intelligence agency just to process the output, including leaks, from our existing agencies, including the uber-intelligence office that was established in part for this purpose.

As a general matter, I’m not a post-modernist. But I am when it comes to the CIA, an agency that appears to be dysfunctional, perhaps hopelessly so.

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