While the Obama administration is running into some turbulence on other fronts, the president's controversial pick to be director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Leon Panetta, is now on cruise control. The former White House chief of staff, federal budget director, and California congressman was opposed at first by new Senate Intelligence Committee chair Dianne Feinstein, a fellow Californian who was not consulted by Obama on Panetta's appointment. But his confirmation hearing yesterday and today went pretty smoothly.
Feinstein long ago backed down from her opinion that only "an intelligence professional" should be CIA director, a view which ignores the history of the post. But the criticism didn't only come from a miffed Senate committee chair. The far right weighed in heavily against Panetta.MSNBC anchor Keith Olbermann went ballistic over former Vice President Dick Cheney's claim that America is less safe for opposing torture.
Panetta came out firing against former Vice President Dick Cheney's claims this week that Obama's new direction -- with torture opponent Panetta in the forefront -- would make America less safe. Cheney was and is a super-hawk, a prime mover behind the unreliable torture policy on interrogation of suspected terrorists, as well as the prisons at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, global black eyes for America, the secret CIA prisons in foreign countries, the policy of unlimited detention without charge or disposition, the policy of violating the Geneva Convention, the policy of "rendition" of prisoners to countries where even more extreme forms of torture than waterboarding are employed. He says the new administration is more concerned with reading the rights of Al Qaeda members than protecting America.
Panetta dismissed Cheney's stance.
"I was disappointed by those comments, because the implication is that somehow this country is more vulnerable to attack because the President of the United States wants to abide by the law and the Constitution," Panetta said. "I think we're a stronger nation when we abide by the law and the Constitution. I am absolutely convinced that we can protect this country; we can get the information we need; we can provide security for the American people and we can abide by the law."
Not that Panetta is necessarily going to be the darling of the left as CIA director.Senate Intelligence Committee chair Dianne Feinstein initially opposed the appointment of fellow Californian Panetta.
He's absolutely opposed to prosecution of CIA agents who carried out torture and renditions during the Bush/Cheney Administration. The White House of that era provided legal opinions supporting what was national policy. And while Panetta says he will cooperate with investigations of what happened during that era, he doesn't want a witch hunt against CIA agents.
Panetta's also a little vague on how long terrorism suspects should be detained without being charged. He says it shouldn't be "indefinite," but won't say how long it should be. In part because he'll be part of a Cabinet-level panel convened by Obama to work out those specifics as part of the shutdown of Guantanamo Bay.
Of course, had President Bush and Vice President Cheney treated suspected terrorists as prisoners under the Geneva Convention -- something we always want for our troops, and that we have essentially honored in all previous wars of the modern era -- that particular problem wouldn't exist. They just couldn't have been tortured in the course of their imprisonment.Panetta made clear some of his top priorities as director of CIA:
We know that Al Qaeda has reestablished a safe-haven in the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan. We know they want to hit us again. But we don't know where that next attack will come from, and we don't have answers to a range of important questions. How do we deny Al Qaeda its safe haven? How do we effectively operate against this target and their command structure? Where are Osama bin Ladin and his top deputies hiding?
We know that Iran is enriching uranium and supporting terrorists. But we don't know when they will have that capacity or what exactly it will take to get Iran off of its dangerous path.
We know that the situation in Afghanistan remains unstable. But we don't know what it will take to reverse that trend, to stop the Taliban, or to control corruption and institute long-term stability.
We know that there have been security gains in Iraq. But we don't know whether these gains will translate into political stability and create favorable conditions for a safe U.S. drawdown of forces.
We know North Korea detonated a nuclear weapon in 2006. But we don't know whether Kim Jong-Il is prepared to give up that nuclear capability once and for all.
We know that our communications networks are vulnerable to malicious activity and cyber threats. But we don't know what our adversaries are planning and what damage they are capable of inflicting.
These are just some of the crucial areas that require good intelligence. And job one will be to look at Agency operations and make certain that we meet these demands. This will take time. But it is our most important task.
One very good piece of news since Panetta was appointed last month is last Saturday's elections around Iraq for provincial offices. They went off without an apparent hitch. Security was mostly provided by Iraqi forces. This is a positive sign for the idea of accelerating the withdrawal of US troops -- now scheduled to be completed at the end of 2011 -- back to Obama's original campaign plan of 16 months.
Other things are not getting worse. Pakistan, which just released notorious nuclear proliferator A.Q. Khan, is increasingly unstable. Jihadists have repeatedly disrupted US supply lines to Afghanistan -- which mostly run through Pakistan -- this week blowing up a bridge in the historic Khyber Pass.Moscow mischievously wonders if the Obama Administration really has a new policy on torture.
Russia, which seems to have tamped down General David Petraeus's belief that he secured new supply lines to Afghanistan through the former Soviet republics of Central Asia just prior to Obama's inauguration, now says it is happy to talk directly with the Obama Administration about securing those supply lines.
Which undoubtedly comes with a price.
So Panetta has a more than full plate as the next CIA director. It's good he's going to be starting out without all the political distractions that many thought would derail him last month.