06/16/2010 10:20 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The CIA Back on Top? Panetta's Opportunity for Real Reform

The resignation of Admiral Dennis Blair as the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) was a surprise to no one in the intelligence business. In fact, many wonder how and why Blair lasted as long as he did.

To a great extent, Blair's demise was the result of a miscalculation of the staying power and resolve of the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Publicly and behind the scenes, CIA Chief Leon Panetta worked hard over the past 16 months to shield the CIA from the power hungry hands of an overly aggressive DNI, and somehow managed to protect and preserve the status of the CIA as this country's preeminent intelligence entity.

Panetta faces a new challenge with the nomination of retired General James Clapper to head the office of the DNI, but should he move quickly and adroitly, he has a chance once and for all to position the CIA atop what has become the murky world of intelligence bureaucracy.

Slightly over a month ago, Director Panetta announced a Five Year Plan to take the Agency into the 21st century. He calls it CIA 2015. If his reforms are indeed the way to fortify the CIA's stature atop the Intelligence Community permanently, then the lessons of history must inform the execution of his new plan.

In 1998, legendary CIA Deputy Director for Operations Jack Downing drew up his own five-year plan for the clandestine service with goals not unlike those recently articulated by Director Panetta. Downing tasked his staff (of which I was one) with drafting a plan-of-plans to revitalize the nation's human intelligence capabilities (referred to as HUMINT), emphasizing, among other things, the recruitment of language qualified case officers, enhancement of their cover identities, and deployment of those officers to strategic foreign locales.

The Downing plan withered with his departure, the emergence of Usama bin Ladin, and incessant calls for the clandestine service to defuse the crisis d'jour. While there was time to plan, there was no time for follow through and hopes raised for internally engineered reform were dashed.

Panetta's new blueprint rests on three firm pillars. The first wisely invests in people, including the recruitment and training of a diverse workforce with renewed emphasis on language qualified case officers and analysts. The second invests in technology "to extend the CIA's operational and analytic reach". And the third pillar would upgrade the CIA's capacity to surge for emergencies - eventualities now far more routine than occasional.

Success across all three pillars is vital, and Panetta might consider three steps that draw on CIA historical lessons and fall within the minimum essential requirements to institutionalize his reforms:

First, he should roll up his sleeves and personally drive the reform process - realizing that this step requires finding time when there may be none. Like most executives, past CIA directors followed tradition by distancing themselves from the change process through routine delegation. While shifting the burden of change to managers may work in other agencies, the CIA remains an exception.

With the best intentions, prior directors bypassed the step of seeking advice from the rank and file who cried out for progressive change but were neither consulted nor otherwise engaged. Panetta not only needs to take ownership of the process, but reenergize a staff that has grown accustomed to setting their watches by the next reorganization memo.

Second, Panetta should realize that while his call to team intelligence analysts with spies in the field promises real time information transfer, this is harder to do than he thinks. Currently, field case officers (the heart of CIA's clandestine service) transmit intelligence through an entirely separate cadre of reports officers who, in turn, ready the information so analysts - most of whom reside in Langley - can read and interpret it.

Until a relationship of binding trust is established and cultural barriers between case officers and analysts are forever erased, success will be predictably slow and incremental.

Third, Panetta needs to accelerate the post 9/11 CIA evolution from a strategically focused agency created to track Communist states, to one that recognizes decentralized--and increasingly fragmented -- terrorist threats. This requires a more agile, tactically-focused intelligence enterprise.

Panetta needs to embrace the elite corps of the National Clandestine Service, and together with the Directorate of Intelligence, oversee the drafting of tactical doctrine that can accommodate the idiosyncrasies and diverse origins of today's lethal threats. Former Director George Tenet captured the post-9/11 metaphor as "a snake with many heads." Panetta requires a plan of attack for each virulent threat. And it should be buttressed by tactical doctrine at intellectual parity with the strategic doctrine that guided the CIA successfully through the Cold War.

CIA and other security professionals have waited decades for a plan that can actually work--one with a half-life longer than the tenure of the incumbent making the reform announcement.

As a respected pragmatist, Director Panetta no doubt recognizes the opportunity Blair's departure has created. Implementing meaningful reform at the CIA while public debate once again rages over what the role and authorities of the DNI should really be, presents Panetta with an unprecedented opportunity to cross the elusive line from brilliant conceptualizer to transformative hero. This is his time.