Lessons of Obama's First Cabinet Controversy

It had to come some time. Despite a nearly flawless transition period of astute, substantive and widely praised cabinet appointments, the nascent Obama administration has unintentionally provoked its first controversy. Significantly, it is in the sphere of national security.

A vigorous effort is now underway to defend and explain the selection of Leon Panetta to serve as the Director of Central Intelligence. To critics of Panetta's appointment, the backlash was predictable. A thoughtful former congressman and capable White House Chief of Staff, Panetta has no expertise in intelligence affairs and zero experience in covert operations. Skeptics argue that not only is Mr. Panetta a questionable choice at a pivotal moment in the history of the CIA, he is that rare transition appointment that unmistakably smacks of political rather than strategic considerations. To his defenders, Panetta is the outsider whose independence, integrity and managerial acumen are necessary to reform a troubled institution. While both arguments have merit, the fact that such a dispute has emerged is unfortunate. This is a controversy that could have been avoided.

As widely reported, the President-elect's first choice for CIA Director was John Brennan, the transition coordinator for intelligence affairs and the former Director of the National Counterterrorism Center, whose name was floated in November--only to incite a noisy outcry in the blogosphere, where Brennan's past identification with Bush administration policies on renditions, wiretaps and interrogations made him a suddenly toxic prospect. As a result, Brennan was out.

While one can understand why the new administration does not wish to antagonize human rights and civil liberties groups, those advising the President-elect may have gone overboard. They have acquiesced to an impossible litmus test, searching for a candidate so pristine in past associations with intelligence matters that virtually anyone with actual experience has been deemed too controversial. Yet there are an abundant number of candidates who left the CIA before the excesses of the Bush years who are not tainted and could have been excellent appointments. Jack Devine, for example, is a former CIA Deputy Director for Operations who served in the agency for 30 years, with experience ranging from South America to Europe to Afghanistan. He left the CIA in 2000 with a distinguished record and has since written perceptive analyses on the challenges of intelligence reform. Another enormously qualified candidate is Richard Clarke, the respected Clinton administration White House counterterrorism director, who briefly served under President Bush before resigning and becoming one of the administration's most incisive and outspoken critics.

It is unclear why such experienced veterans as Devine and Clarke--unblemished by the Bush era--were passed over. The presumption in political circles, as reported by the New York Times some weeks ago, is that the President-elect has been trying to reconcile the tension between making "a clean break with Bush administration policies he has condemned and concern about alienating an agency with a central role in the campaign against Al Qaeda." It appears that Mr. Obama's advisers reduced the President-elect's choice to an "either/or" proposition, ignoring the possibility that a candidate might be identified who exemplified both intelligence expertise and independence from the agency's recent past abuses. Thus the first lesson of Mr. Obama's cabinet controversy is not to be cornered into accepting the conventional wisdom if it unnecessarily limits his latitude for choice.

If advisers to the President-elect had heeded this lesson they could have avoided the self-inflicted wounds suffered at the hands of fellow Democrats. An astonished Senator Dianne Feinstein, the new head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, threw cold water on Panetta's proposed appointment the moment she learned of it. "I was not informed about the selection," said Feinstein. "My position has consistently been that I believe the agency is best served by having an intelligence professional in charge at this time." Speaking through a senior aide, Senator John D. Rockefeller IV, the outgoing chairman of the committee, expressed the same view.

Mr. Obama is now forced to play a weak hand. On-the-job training is not a desirable way to run the most secretive and insular institution in the U.S. government and the world's largest and most complex spy agency, which today manages some 20,000 professionals positioned around the globe. Mr. Panetta has no connection to or demonstrated understanding of the clandestine community's Byzantine ways. He never even served on the House Intelligence Committee. Yet Mr. Panetta can compensate for his lack of intelligence gravitas by articulating a compelling and timely vision for the principal mission of the CIA in the twenty-first century.

The greatest national security threat confronting the United States today is not Iraq, the war in Afghanistan or even the potential of a nuclear Iran. It is the intersection of fissile materials, biological weapons and nuclear technology with terrorist networks acting beyond state control. The next Director of Central Intelligence must subordinate all of the resources and capabilities of the agency to prevent this fateful convergence of weapons of mass destruction and non-state actors. This is the implicit message of an important bipartisan report presented to Congress in early December by the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction, which ominously warned that "unless the world community acts decisively and with great urgency, it is more likely than not that a weapon of mass destruction will be used in a terrorist attack somewhere in the world by the end of 2013." There is no more important priority for America's clandestine services than to synthesize the capacities for intelligence collection and covert action to avert such a disaster.

Mr. Panetta will be prepared in his confirmation hearings to speak out against past CIA abuses in interrogation techniques and detentions. He would be well advised to be just as prepared to discuss the CIA's most essential institutional priority--detecting and preventing terrorist attacks with weapons of mass destruction. In this fashion Mr. Panetta can perhaps apply another lesson implicit in the controversy surrounding his qualifications. Looking ahead, he should engage his critics by invoking the paramount mission today for the CIA, one that the agency is uniquely poised to tackle.

There is one additional lesson relevant to Mr. Panetta's appointment. It is a lesson from the past that must be applied in the future by Mr. Obama, our next commander-in-chief. No matter who is appointed to run the CIA--experienced veteran or independent outsider--the intelligence accomplishments of the agency are irrelevant if they are not studied and debated by the president's most senior counselors.

In 1964 McGeorge Bundy, the brilliant National Security Adviser, was presented with multiple intelligence analyses debunking the prevailing assumptions of the imminent Americanization of the Vietnam war. The legendary Dr. Sherman Kent, in a still famous intelligence finding, demolished the predictions of the so-called "Domino Theory." The Sigma-I war games shattered the notion that strategic bombing would slow the ascent of the Vietcong insurgency. The same conclusion was reached in a successor study, Sigma-II. Similar assessments from the intelligence agencies at the State and Defense departments reached comparable conclusions. Bundy was exposed to all of these findings and actually participated in Pentagon war games. Yet the evidence suggests he never confronted President Lyndon Johnson with these disparate intelligence findings nor did he call for a wider debate among the administration's senior advisers to inform the views of the commander-in-chief.

As President, Mr. Obama must insist that for crucial questions of national security strategy, all of the credible intelligence analyses--from within and beyond the CIA--must be surfaced, explored and argued in detail. This is what Mr. Obama must demand of his CIA Director regardless of the politics or personalities at play.

Gordon M. Goldstein is the author of "Lessons In Disaster: McGeorge Bundy And The Path To War In Vietnam," recently published by Times Books.

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