2009 - %3, January

CIA Insider: Panetta's A Good Pick for CIA Chief

| Wed Jan. 7, 2009 10:32 AM EST

The front page of The Washington Post screams, "Obama Is Under Fire Over Panetta Selection." The article notes that "current and former intelligence officials expressed sharp resentment over Obama's choice of Leon E. Panetta as CIA director." CQPolitics.com blogger and national security journalist Jeff Stein, quoting a former CIA operations veteran, reports that the rank-and-file reaction to Panetta at the CIA has been "overwhelmingly negative." Stein notes that many CIA field people aren't keen on bringing an intelligence establishment outsider into the CIA and would rather have someone who knows the nitty-gritty of spy work running the place--though Stein does report that "a number of former top CIA officials" have told him that Panetta could be a good choice, given that he can be expected to have the standing within the Obama administration to bring effective leadership to the agency.

I asked a former top CIA official who had served not too long ago to share his/her view of the Panetta pick. S/he would only do so if not identified. I know it's often unsatisfying to read a long quote from an unnamed source. But his/her perspective is interesting enough to merit presenting the full response. Let me add that this person is savvy in both the ways of Langley and Washington:

I was expecting to be surprised...and I was. It seems to me to be a reasonably good one pick given the cards they had dealt themselves. The Obama transition folks massively mishandled the [onetime contender for CIA chief] John Brennan situation. When they caved to a little outside pressure [which resulted from Brennan's previous association with the CIA's so-called enhanced interrogation procedures] and forced him to remove himself from consideration -- they ended up ruling out a whole class of potential candidates. (i.e. anyone who had served in a position of any significance in intelligence in the past 8 years). So then what could they do?

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Transparency and Bipartisanship On the March. Really!

| Wed Jan. 7, 2009 10:24 AM EST

I'm convinced that Obama's massive (and growing) popularity has as much to do with stuff like this as it does with his personal charisma and his plans for fixing the economy, health care, and America's reputation abroad. Even those who opposed Obama during the campaign are seeing that the new administration will be run with respect for the other side and a full embrace of transparency. Jake Tapper:

House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, R-Vir., suggested said the [stimulus] bill should be put on the Internet a week before Congress votes on it.
Mr. Obama smiled and said something along the lines of, "maybe if I was better at faking it , I'd say, 'Great idea — we'll take you up on that.' But we've actually talked about this idea."
Obama turned it over to incoming White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel who essentially said they would do the Republicans one better. They're planning a Google-like search function to show every program funded by the stimulus package, whether it comes in under or over-budget, whether it is meeting its intended purpose, and how many jobs it is creating.
"Tell you what," Obama said, "we'll still call it the Cantor idea."

Also note that Obama is insisting that the stimulus bill be clear of earmarks. This stuff is catnip for fiscal conservatives and government reform do-gooders alike. (H/T Sunlight)

Panetta at the CIA

| Wed Jan. 7, 2009 1:45 AM EST

PANETTA AT THE CIA....Fred Kaplan asked Richard Clarke about Leon Panetta today, and Clarke mentioned that a point in Panetta's favor as CIA director is that as Bill Clinton's budget director and White House chief of staff during the 90s "he was one of a very few people who knew about all of the covert and special-access programs." That could come in handy:

These "special-access programs" — satellites, sensors, and other intelligence-gathering devices whose very existence is known only to those with compartmentalized security clearances — form a welter of costly, overlapping, ill-coordinated, and largely unsupervised projects that are run by private contractors to a greater extent than most people might imagine.

One former CIA official who is familiar with these programs (and who asked not to be identified) speculates that Panetta's main task might be to clean up not only the agency's high-profile mess — the "black ops" that have tarnished America's reputation around the world — but this budgetary-bureaucratic mess as well. Certainly, he knows where the line items are buried to a degree that few insiders can match.

But I wonder how much control Panetta would have over this stuff. Isn't most of it part of NSA, NRO, or other Pentagon outfits? Still: an interesting point. Panetta's past experience may be more relevant than people think.

iTunes Drops Copy Protection, Adds Tiered Pricing, Still No Foot Massages

| Tue Jan. 6, 2009 10:45 PM EST

mojo-photo-itunesscreen.jpgIn a quietly revolutionary move, the world's biggest online music retailer announced today that they've managed to please just about everybody except those of us wanting a little footsie-rub. For music fans, iTunes will soon drop copy protection on every single track they have for sale; for the suits, iTunes has finally given in to a longtime record label demand for variable pricing. You give a little, you get a little. Actually, I suppose I shouldn't call this "revolutionary" since Amazon.com's ugly-but-functional mp3 store has been doing the same thing for about 16 months now (and don't forget about the dance-music-centric Beatport, who will even sell you a big ole wave file if you want). But Apple is undeniably the biggie, and their abandonment of D.R.M. ("digital rights management") software means you'll be able to happily do whatever you please with your purchased songs, the same way you can with your… er… not-so-purchased ones. The pricing system will be three-tiered: music you don't really want for 69 cents, music you kind of want for 99 cents, and brand new tunes you just gotta have will cost $1.29. See how that works?

According to the New York Times, everybody's happy:

Music industry watchers widely applauded the move and said it could help digital music sales, which have shown signs of slowing just five years after Apple introduced iTunes. In particular, lower prices for some songs could spur consumers "to buy deeper into the catalog, and expand their relationship with digital music," said Russ Crupnick, an analyst with the NPD Group. … Industry pundits have long pointed to D.R.M. as one culprit for the music companies' woes, saying it alienated some customers while doing little to slow piracy on file-sharing networks.

So, how's it work?

Better on the Small Screen?

| Tue Jan. 6, 2009 8:00 PM EST

BETTER ON THE SMALL SCREEN?....Last month, after emailing to taunt me about getting schooled by Ta-Nehisi Coates for my primitive esthetic sensibilities, Scott Eric Kaufman regaled me with some weird theory he had about why The Dark Knight is actually better on a TV set than on the big screen. Over the weekend he explained this theory on his blog:

Watching the film on a small screen — one on which a bug of a Batman glides between five-inch tall skyscrapers while Heath Ledger's Joker licks human-sized lips and establishes human-sized eye-contact — it's impossible to deny that this supposedly epic performance is better suited to the televisual medium.

"Impossible to deny" is a mighty strong claim, but I just rented Dark Knight on my way back from the market and plan to put this theory to the test sometime soon. Anybody else have an opinion on this vital question?

And Then What?

| Tue Jan. 6, 2009 5:58 PM EST

AND THEN WHAT?....Marc Lynch went to a lecture this morning given by Israel's Ambassador to the United States, Sallai Meridor:

It was a profoundly dismaying experience. Because if Ambassador Meridor is taken at his word, then Israel has no strategy in Gaza.

Asked three times by audience members, Meridor simply could not offer any plausible explanation as to how its military campaign in Gaza would achieve its stated goals....As to a political strategy tied to the military campaign, nothing. No guidance as to whether Israel would re-occupy Gaza, or on what terms it would accept a cease-fire. No thoughts as to whether the campaign would cause Hamas to fall from power or help the Palestinian Authority regain political power.

....In short, Meridor quite literally offered no strategy beyond hitting Gaza hard and hoping for the best. "In terms of creating damage we are certainly on the right path," noted the Ambassador. Few would disagree with that assessment, at least. But some might hope that the bloody, battered path might actually be leading somewhere.

To be honest, this seems to be true of most wars these days: hit 'em hard and hope that something shakes loose. But while that may have been a plausible strategy in colonial wars a hundred years ago, it doesn't seem to work so well anymore. I doubt very much that it's going to work for Israel this time around either.

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Media Destruction Watch

| Tue Jan. 6, 2009 5:31 PM EST

MEDIA DESTRUCTION WATCH....Felix Salmon reports that the latest auction of defaulted Tribune Company bonds produced dismal results:

Much more startling is the price on the senior secured loans: just 23.75 cents on the dollar. I checked in with Nishul Saperia at Markit, and he said that it was the lowest recovery rate he'd ever seen for a secured loan....

I should imagine that today's news has been greeted with a shudder at the Chicago Tribune, the LA Times, and other Tribune properties: clearly no one on Wall Street thinks they're worth much even without the huge pile of debt that Sam Zell loaded onto their fragile shoulders. Is David Geffen still interested in buying an uneconomic trophy property? He could turn out to be many employees' final hope.

I wonder how much longer I'll be getting a newspaper delivered to my driveway each morning?

Public Service Announcement

| Tue Jan. 6, 2009 4:46 PM EST

PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT....Apparently "PEBO" is the latest shorthand for "President-Elect Barack Obama." Just thought you'd like to know.

You Are the Best Readers Ever

| Tue Jan. 6, 2009 4:09 PM EST

onion_opinion479.article.jpgA couple of weeks ago we posted about the tough financial times we've encountered as a result of some funders pulling back on previously made commitments (plus of course the general economic meltdown). We asked you to help fill the hole they left--and because you are awesome, you did. We're going into the new year leaner, meaner, but close enough to our fighting weight to take on whatever stories our crack investigative reporters encounter. (Job One: Keep tabs on the new administration, not to mention that line of bailout applicants stretching around the block.) We'll spend your money carefully and we hope you like (and are outraged by) the results.

While we're on house news, next week (we think) we're launching our brand new website—same content, but much better presented and with a spiffy new commenting system that builds on what we've learned from you over the years. Thanks again for being part of the MoJo community. And P.S. The subscriptions department kind of told us not to mention this, but we're going to anyway: There's a super secret special offer going on now whereby you get a MoJo subscription for a year PLUS a pound of Peace Coffee for $10. That's less than a pound of Starbucks! And then you can be just like this guy.

Sanjay Gupta: Don't Laugh, It's a Good Pick!

| Tue Jan. 6, 2009 3:48 PM EST

gupta.jpg The CNN personality is Obama's pick for Surgeon General. I like it.

If you believe, as I do, that the Surgeon General's top job in the Obama Administration will be convincing Americans that the obesity epidemic is a real crisis, Sanjay Gupta is your man. I know, it's easy to lump him in with Dr. Phil and all those other lightweight TV "doctors." But the man has tackled obesity before, is a university professor, advised Hillary Clinton on health policy when she was First Lady, and most importantly, has the pitchman skills to get Americans moving. You could even argue that having TV talent is the top requirement for the Surgeon General at this time. And dare I say it, you would be correct.