A suitable director for a post-modern CIA?

My first reaction to Barack Obama’s selection of Leon Panetta as CIA director was puzzlement. After all, Panetta has no real background in intelligence gathering or analysis.

But on reflection, Obama’s decision may make sense on the merits. The CIA’s primary importance these days arguably has less to do with intelligence gathering or analysis than with political gamesmanship. The CIA’s highest profile assessments this decade — that Iran stopped its efforts to develop nuclear weapons and that Iraq possessed WMD — weren’t important as reflections of reality. Indeed, it is quite doubtful that either assessment accurately reflected reality. The assessments were important because the CIA made them and because, as such, they could serve as justification for action or inaction.

In this context, it is understandable that, in selecting a CIA director, Obama would place a higher premium on political acumen than on background in intelligence.

I don’t mean to suggest that intelligence gathering is peripheral to the CIA’s mission. But it does seem these days that the CIA is a political actor first and an intelligence operation second. The selection of Panetta may reflect this “post-modern” reality.

It may, in addition, reflect the plausible view that one need not have experience in the field of intelligence to run an agency that does an effective job of gathering and assessing intelligence.

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