So far, so good for Leon Panetta in confirmation hearings before the Intelligence Committee of the United States Senate.
In the film "Traffic" actor Michael Douglas portrays an esteemed judge nominated by the President to oversee expanded efforts to stem devastating drug flows from Mexico into the U.S. A White House political pro who briefs him stresses the Congressional hearing room is absolutely not the court room. Interrogators are not interested in securing facts but rather on securing face time for themselves on TV news and commentary programs.
Panetta, a former member of the House of Representatives, knows how to act in this theatre. As White House chief of staff during the Clinton Administration, he dealt with Congress skillfully, and helped prepare others to do the same. So far in the hearings he has been polite without being supine and deft at deflecting confrontation.
One stentorian Senator — who gets no name time here — has rhetorically raised concern about former CIA Director John Deutsch, appointed to an advisory panel on spy satellites. Deutsch was sanctioned during the Clinton administration for putting sensitive classified information on an insecure home computer.
MIT Prof. Deutsch was likely guilty of absentmindedness along with casual arrogance, but not espionage. Panetta shrewdly did not rise to this bait, noting instead he will consult with Admiral Dennis Blair, the new Director of National Intelligence.
The Bush administration was characterized by worrisome intelligence turnover. Porter Goss, a former CIA professional as well as member of Congress, proved notably unpopular as well as unsuccessful in leading the agency.
The appointment of Air Force General Michael V. Hayden as successor to Goss, followed by naming Admiral Blair as overall intelligence head in the new Obama administration, has fed concern the CIA may become dominated by the military.
This is unpersuasive, ignorant of both history and inherent difficulties of integrating civilian and military perspectives. The Central Intelligence Group was established in 1946, succeeded by the Central Intelligence Agency the following year. The first four directors were all senior military officers: Rear Admiral Sidney W. Souers, General Hoyt S. Vandenberg, Vice Admiral Roscoe H. Hillenkoetter, and General Walter Bedell Smith.
Bedell Smith, a very successful CIA head, had been chief of staff to Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower during World War II. As such, he played a crucial role in managing vital information for the most demanding and difficult military alliance in history.
In more recent decades, the U.S. has paid a high price for alienation between civilian and military agencies. During the Vietnam War, there was general lack of communication between military intelligence and the CIA, even though the latter proved to be notably accurate — and prescient.
Vietnam commander General William Westmoreland, a man of great personal integrity, was so proudly positive about prosecution of the war that he unintentionally surrounded himself with yes-men. Irreverent — and well informed — CIA pros were shunned. Military Intelligence officers literally were ordered not to talk to them. Late in the war, Congress acted to force cooperation. Panetta in the hearings has explicitly condemned having "a group of yes-people around you."
Eisenhower stated that a "strange sort of genius" is required to excel at intelligence. Seeking elective office is tough, serving as White House Chief of Staff even tougher. If confirmed, Panetta will face his toughest job of all, but past experience and a persuasive personality will be of great help.
(Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Wisconsin. Contact him at email@example.com.)