In the Shadow of bin Laden: The California Connection

The first official to announce the death of Osama bin Laden was not President Barack Obama, it was Senator Dianne Feinstein. The Senate Intelligence Committee chair was speaking at a memorial service in Santa Monica for her longtime campaign manager, Kam Kuwata.

Feinstein says she thought that Obama was about to give his nationally televised address. Which he actually gave about an hour later. And that the memorial, filled with pols and media types, was off the record. Which of course is why her remarks were reported in the media.

California Senator Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee and the first official to announce Osama bin Laden's death, discusses the mission.

But Feinstein's premature announcement of one of the biggest stories in recent memory is only one of the California connections to the demise of the legendary founder and leader of al Qaeda, who claimed credit for ordering the 9/11 attacks on America and eluded American forces for nearly a decade.

Obama credits another fixture in California politics, longtime Congressman-turned-federal budget director-turned-Clinton White House chief of staff-turned CIA Director Leon Panetta with having held overall command of the mission to find and take down bin Laden.

Not long after Obama became president and made Panetta his surprise pick to be the director of the Central Intelligence Agency -- over Feinstein's objections, as I wrote about at the time on the Huffington Post -- he charged him with a special mission. Revive the long lagging hunt for bin Laden, find him, and capture or kill him.

Some of that story has been reported on. More will come out in the days, weeks, months, and years ahead.

When Feinstein realized that Obama was very serious about Panetta as his CIA director, she went along with the program. Before that happened, she got some well-deserved flak.

The senior senator from California had wanted a career CIA official who had risen under the Bush/Cheney Administration to be Obama's CIA director. Panetta had no background in the CIA, though he had been a prime consumer of intelligence as Bill Clinton's White House chief of staff. Feinstein also appeared to want a more hawkish type in the post.

In the wake of the bin Laden mission, that seems ironic.

I defended Panetta's appointment, as you see in this Huffington Post piece and another the week before it.

Feinstein's choice, a CIA insider, Bush/Cheney Administration CIA Deputy Director Stephen Kappes, just seemed wrong. The appearance alone of having someone who could be tied to the previous administration's wholesale torture policies showed the senator to have a surprisingly tin ear.

In the immediate aftermath of the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound in Pakistan, President Barack Obama congratulated CIA Director Leon Panetta.

Instead, we got Leon Panetta, who should have smooth sailing in his Senate confirmation to replace the retiring Bob Gates as secretary of defense.

Feinstein and Panetta are very familiar figures to me from California politics. Usually in the context of their being touted as leading candidates for governor of California, a notion which I've routinely shot down over the years on the grounds that neither would actually run.

After her near miss run for governor of California in 1990, Feinstein won a seat in the U.S. Senate in 1992 and has been there ever since, working toward her goal of becoming chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, a prime perch with presence on the global stage and a key to the secrets of the kingdom.

I knew she wanted to be Intelligence Committee chair. But she was routinely touted by most of the press and much of the political community as a prospective, even likely, candidate for governor in 1998, 2003 (the recall election), and 2010. Each time I wrote and said she would not run, especially against my old friend Jerry Brown.

In 2003, after learning definitively that she would not run, I told Arnold Schwarzenegger. It was the day before he made his surprise announcement of his own candidacy on The Tonight Show.

Panetta, too, was regularly touted as a leading candidate for governor. Panetta, who began in politics as one of that vanished breed now seen only in Mad Men, a liberal Republican working for California Senator Tom Kuchel, ousted in a 1968 Republican primary by conservative state schools chief Max Rafferty (who went on to lose the general election to Alan Cranston, ran the Office of Civil Rights in the Nixon Administration's Health, Education, and Welfare Department. Since he tried to enforce civil rights laws, he soon got into hot water and departed to New York to work for anti-war liberal Republican Mayor John Lindsay. (Who himself ran as a liberal Democrat in the 1972 presidential primaries.)

In 1971, Panetta became a Democrat and moved back home to Monterey, California where he practiced law and, in 1976, unseated an incumbent Republican congressman. He rose to the chairmanship of the House Budget Committee, from which Bill Clinton plucked him to be first federal budget director, then White House chief of staff.

After leaving the White House in 1997, Panetta was touted as a candidate for governor of California the following year. It didn't happen, and Democrat Gray Davis was elected, as I expected. When the recall rolled around in 2003, Panetta again was touted and again demurred, as was the case again in 2006.

Meanwhile, Panetta had formed a think tank at California State University Monterey and become an ally of then Governor Schwarzenegger on various political reform issues. But he kept his hand in on geopolitical issues as a member of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, which examined the Iraq War and found it wanting and wrong-headed, being naturally excoriated on the right in the process.

Vice Admiral William McRaven, a Texan trained and educated in California, directed the Osama bin Laden mission as head of the secretive Joint Special Operations Command.

Panetta, who turns 73 next month, had seemed to be set for a distinguished semi-retirement. Then Obama made him director of the CIA.

Funny, I'd never thought of him as "M."

Feinstein says she was first apprised that bin Laden might be living within a very easy jog of the Pakistan Military Academy in December. And that fellow Californian Panetta sort of conferred with her about the take-down not long before the final go order was given. Sort of in the sense that he was on the phone and being very delphic and she wasn't sure what secret he was talking about.

Perhaps more consequentially, Feinstein, who should know, says that the intel that led to the finding of bin Laden's courier, who ultimately led the CIA to bin Laden's compound, was not developed from information gained through waterboarding or other "enhanced interrogation" methods.

But Feinstein seems to differ with Panetta on that. In a seeming reversal of their positions two years ago, when Feinstein wanted the Bush/Cheney veteran to head the CIA and Obama picked the more idealistic Panetta, the CIA director indicated that torture may have helped develop the intelligence.

On May 3rd, Panetta told NBC anchor Brian Williams that Pakistan was not notified in advance of the Osama bin Laden raid for fear that he would be tipped off. He also said that a photo of the dead bin Laden would likely be released. Those things got most of the attention. But he went on. Panetta's language is not entirely clear, I suspect deliberately, but the former California congressman seems to say that key intelligence may have been gained from rough techniques that may include waterboarding.

Of course, he does not actually say that.

Brian Williams: Can you confirm that it was as a result of water boarding that we learned what we needed to learn to go after Bin Laden?

Leon Panetta: Brian, in the intelligence business you work from a lot of sources of information and that was true here... It's a little difficult to say it was due just to one source of information that we got... I think some of the detainees clearly were, you know, they used these enhanced interrogation techniques against some of these detainees. But I'm also saying that, you know, the debate about whether we would have gotten the same information through other approaches I think is always going to be an open question.

Brian Williams: So finer point, one final time, enhanced interrogation techniques -- which has always been kind of a handy euphemism in these post-9/11 years -- that includes water boarding?

Leon Panetta: That's correct.

That's awfully vague, of course, especially compared to Feinstein's definitive statement. What is he saying? I don't really know, to be frank. He's certainly taking care not to offend some of the more aggressive types under his charge.

Veteran California politician-turned-CIA Director Leon Panetta has been picked to be the new secretary of defense.

But there's even more to the California connection here.

While Panetta was in overall charge of the mission to find and take down bin Laden, a charge that Obama gave him in early 2009, it was the head of Joint Special Operations Command, Vice Admiral William McRaven, who directed the mission from the base in Afghanistan.

McRaven is a product of the University of Texas, where he was on the track team and majored in journalism. No, that last is not a typo. But though he is a Texan, California can certainly lay some claim to him as well as to Panetta.

Like every Navy commando, McRaven received his SEAL training in Coronado, California, headquarters of the Naval Special Warfare Command. And McRaven followed his bachelor's degree in journalism with a master's degree in low-intensity conflict at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, Panetta's home town. I'm told he was the first graduate in that program, which he helped put together. His thesis served as the basis for his 1996 book, Spec Ops: Case Studies in Special Operations Warfare - Theory and Practice, in which he analyzes eight special operations missions carried out between 1940 and 1976 by British, German, Italian, and American units.

McRaven is getting a promotion, one in which he will continue to work very closely with Defense Secretary-designate Panetta. He is getting a fourth star and command of U.S Special Operations Command, which oversees not just the black ops units of Joint Special Operations Command, but all American special operations forces.

Between Panetta's experience in cutting costs as Clinton's federal budget director and the striking success of the counter-terrorist bin Laden mission in contrast to the wrongheaded and vastly expensive counter-insurgency mission in Afghanistan, maybe this duo can help get us on a different track. One that doesn't bog us down and actually works.

The new Gallup Poll, with Americans by a 59 percent to 36 percent majority saying it's time to declare "Mission accomplished" and pull out of Afghanistan, shows that the current track hasn't much support.

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