Corn has broken stories on presidents, politicians, and other Washington players. He's written for numerous publications and is a talk show regular. His best-selling books include Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War.
By tapping Leon Panetta to be CIA chief, President-elect Barack Obama sent a clear signal: no to torture. A year ago, Panetta wrote an article declaring, "We cannot and we must not use torture under any circumstances." And he included waterboarding--which the CIA has used---as torture. When Obama on Friday morning publicly announced his appointment of Panetta, he declared, "under my administration, the United States does not torture." He noted that he was handing this "clear charge" to Panetta and that this policy "will ultimately make us safer."
In fact, Obama's reported first choice for the CIA job, John Brennan, a career CIA official, had had his chances scuttled after bloggers and others griped that he had been soft, if not supportive, when it came to torture and CIA renditions. A New Yorkerpiece by Jane Mayer identified him as a "supporter" of so-called enhanced interrogation methods. And in a 2006 PBS interview, Brennan said, "we do have to take off the gloves in some areas" but without going so far as to "forever tarnish the image of the United States abroad." He added that the "dark side has its limits."
Well, Brennan didn't get the top post at Langley. But Obama has selected him to be his chief counterterrorism adviser in the White House. The job requires no Senate confirmation. So Brennan will not be inconvenienced by questions regarding any past involvement with CIA renditions and waterboarding. (Brennan has reportedly told Obama he had no direct role in CIA's abusive interrogation policies and even internally expressed reservations.) In announcing Brennan's appointment, Obama noted, "John has the experience, vision and integrity to advance America's security."
The front page of The Washington Postscreams, "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?
It was Barack Obama's first official joke as president-elect. At his postelection press conference, Obama was asked if he had talked to "any living ex-presidents." He replied, "I've spoken to all of them that are living," and then quipped, "I didn't want to get into a Nancy Reagan thing about, you know, doing any séances." Actually, as first lady, Nancy Reagan consulted an astrologer for guidance, not a medium for a connection to the other side. Afterward, Obama called her to apologize for what he called a flip comment. But if there were to be a séance at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Obama would do well to ask for Ronald Reagan.
News outfits are reporting that Leon Panetta has been tapped by President-elect Barack Obama to take over the Central Intelligence Agency.
It's an unusual choice, for Panetta, a former Democratic congressman who became President Bill Clinton's budget chief and then his White House chief of staff, has no direct intelligence experience, and the CIA in previous decades has been rather unwelcoming to outsiders. (Obama's first pick for the spy chief slot, John Brennan, a career CIA officer, withdrew his name, after bloggers and others raised questions about his involvement in the agency's post-9/11 detention and interrogation programs.) Panetta, if confirmed, will work closely with retired Admiral Dennis Blair, Obama's choice to be director of national intelligence.
Panetta is an even-tempered and highly regarded Washington player--kind of a Mr. Fixit in a nice suit. He is also a zero-tolerance critic of the use of torture, and he considers waterboarding--a tactic used by the CIA--to be torture. A year ago, he wrote in The Washington Monthly:
The Israelis appear to have learned from the Bush-Cheney administration.
On Monday morning, NPR ran an interview with Michael Oren, an American-Israeli best-selling military historian and Israeli reservist who is a spokesperson for the Israeli military. (He has also been a contributing editor for The New Republic.) Asked if the goal of the current Israeli operation in Gaza is regime change--that is, the expulsion of Hamas from power--he replied that Israelis "do not want to see continuation of Hamas rule in Gaza," but added, "It is not Israel's explicit goal to topple the Hamas government....That is not the stated goal of this operation. If it happens...there will be many people happy about it...The stated goal is to restore security to the southern part of Israel."
This line echoes the rhetoric used by Bush-Cheney officials in 2002 and 2003. They repeatedly noted that the United States officially favored regime change in Iraq but that the invasion to come was about WMDs and security. If it took regime change to neutralize that supposed dire WMD threat posed by Saddam Hussein, so be it.