President-elect Barack Obama named his top intelligence leadership team on Friday. And, as I expected, new Senate Intelligence Committee chair Dianne Feinstein rather quickly backed down from her opposition to Leon Panetta and championing of a CIA insider for the post, of only a few days ago. The whole exercise was very instructive in old and new political dynamics.
Feinstein, a very entitled senator from my hometown of San Francisco, embarrassed Obama early last week by saying no one had consulted her on the next director of the CIA -- who is her old friendly California colleague Leon Panetta -- and going on to allow as how she thought Panetta wasn't qualified for the post.
"I was not informed about the selection of Leon Panetta to be the CIA Director. I know nothing about this, other than what I've read," she declared. "My position has consistently been that I believe the Agency is best-served by having an intelligence professional in charge at this time.'"
Not long after, she reversed course, declaring former White House chief of staff, federal budget director and California Congressman Panetta -- a very public opponent of the torture policy that was adopted during Feinstein's tenure as a senior Intelligence Committee member -- to be qualified where just a day before she had deemed him "unqualified."
The fact is that Feinstein was miffed by the Obama team's lack of interest in her opinion, and concerned that her own pick -- a career insider easily tied to the wildly controversial policies of the Bush/Cheney administration -- wasn't taken seriously for the top spot.
Which only pointed up how out of touch California's senior senator really was with regard to the obvious dominant atmospherics of American politics after America's reputation was dragged through the mud by the torture policy, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and more.
Real life is not an episode of 24, which has also backed off some from its increasing torture motif. Under pressure from U.S. Army brass, which told the hit show's producers that their easy storytelling crutch was giving the troops in Iraq the wrong idea about how to get information. Not that Feinstein isn't aware of this.
California's senior senator is an estimable figure, perhaps too estimable for her own judgment in these matters. She was seriously considering getting out of politics 30 years ago when a conservative ex-San Francisco supervisor (SF is a combo city and county) murdered the mayor. She'd lost a mayoral race, the Symbionese Liberation Army had blown up her mailbox on Presidio Terrace. (Where she no longer lives.) Then Dan White, a former member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors who wanted to reverse his hasty resignation from office, changed her life forever by assassinating Mayor George Moscone, who had refused to reappoint the wacky local pol after he resigned in a fit of pique over the emerging social liberalism of the City by the Bay.
White also assassinated San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, the first openly gay major elected official in American history, who ironically had befriended the troubled conservative local pol. (See the very fine film Milk, with great performances by Sean Penn as Harvey Milk and Josh Brolin as Dan White.)
The twin killings by White -- who got off easy on the notorious "Twinkie" defense and later killed himself -- elevated Feinstein, then president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors (read: city council) to the city's mayoralty. Because of her dignity upon taking over the office in such spectacularly tragic circumstances, Feinstein became a mostly unassailable icon.
She rode that into a should-have-won campaign for governor of California in 1990, then an easy win to replace then Governor Pete Wilson in the U.S. Senate in 1992.
Then, blessed with a very wealthy husband who's done very well in some controversial investments involving China and government contracts, she became a fixture on the Washington scene, a respected middle-of-the-road Democrat who routinely makes a lot of noise about returning to California and running for governor. As she did in 1998, deciding finally not to run after some questions were raised about business dealings, and during the recall of 2003. Both times I predicted she wouldn't run. Feinstein had been talking it up again, before she took the chairmanship of the Intelligence Committee -- something not entered into lightly or on a short-term basis -- as I expected.
In becoming a fixture on the intel panel, Feinstein's behavior demonstrated how she could have been so out of tune last week as to call for the appointment of a CIA director who could be easily linked to the practices Obama has made clear must end.
Feinstein didn't raise alarms about the establishment of the notorious prison at Guantanamo, the adoption of torture (a generally unreliable approach to interrogation, in addition to its moral and Geneva Convention problems) as national policy, or the Bush/Cheney move to circumvent the rubber-stamp FISA court and remove all real accountability from massive program of surveillance.
Despite, or perhaps because of, being heavily briefed by the top intelligence professionals she touts for the top posts, she was fooled by cooked-up intel to support the invasion of Iraq on the basis of non-existent weapons of mass destruction. And it took quite awhile for the senator to acknowledge that the war, after the initial invasion phase, was being very badly handled.
She went along with the Bush/Cheney move to adopt what author Ron Suskind calls "the one percent doctrine," Vice President Dick Cheney's notion that if there's a one person chance of a terror plot existing, it should be treated as if it is a certainty.
This is akin to basing your approach to intelligence as if every situation is an episode of 24. But life usually isn't an entertaining TV show.
That's hysteria masquerading as rationality.
Feinstein's candidate for CIA director, current Deputy Director Stephen Kappes, is a respected professional. But he couldn't be appointed to the top job by Obama, as should have been obvious to Feinstein.
Of course, a toxic operation rots its staff from the top down. A career professional can stick around or leave. Which Kappes actually did at one point during Porter Goss's tumultuous tenure in Langley. But not because of the agency's controversial, wrongheaded policies, but apparently because of a personnel dispute. And he wasn't gone long.
Before he left, as head of the operations division, Kappes was very involved with the Iraq WMD issue. That would play very badly in a public hearing, as Feinstein should understand. And, of course, CIA in that period was knee-deep in torture, renditions, and so on.
Kappes may well stay on as deputy director of the agency. But since he's already deputy director, there won't be a big Senate hearing on him, as there would have been had Feinstein had her way and he was the new CIA director-designate.
The truth is, Panetta makes a great deal of sense as CIA director. As even John McCain said at the end of last week: "I think that Leon Panetta is highly qualified, and in all due respect I think it is not bad from time to time to have somebody from outside of the intelligence community but with strong managerial experience as Chief of Staff of the White House, to be head of one of these agencies. I think there is some good balance there."
Panetta, who is not at all tied to the Bush/Cheney policies, having spent most of the past decade running a California-based think tank -- and having been a key member of the Iraq Study Group, which came up with a moderate way out of Iraq -- can be an honest broker in and for a deeply troubled agency.
During the Bush/Cheney years, the CIA has gone from the heights of managing a swiftly successful proxy and special ops war in Afghanistan in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 to the depths of cooked-up Iraq WMD reports and the morass of torture and rendition.
Panetta reflects a clear break from those recent disasters, as well as a strong manager with a lot of experience as a high-level consumer of intelligence. He knows the sort of things a president needs to know in order to make decisions. He's a team builder, and there are few critical agencies -- and the CIA is a very critical agency in a dangerous and complex world -- that have more need to be remade into a highly-functioning team than the CIA.
Feinstein, miffed though she undoubtedly was by not being consulted by the incoming president, should have let go of the baggage of the Bush/Cheney past and recognized that immediately.