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Obama’s Picks for Top Intel Jobs Stir Mixed Reactions

January 6, 2009 at 6:25 PM EST
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President-elect Barack Obama's appointments for the nation's top intelligence jobs were met with skepticism by some members of Congress who expected candidates with more intelligence experience. Intelligence analysts mull the appointments.
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JIM LEHRER: Now, the new team to run American intelligence. Judy Woodruff has that story.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Even Washington insiders were caught off-guard by the word that one of their own, Leon Panetta, is President-elect Obama’s choice to run the CIA.

Although the appointment is still not official, Mr. Obama praised Panetta today for his management skills and integrity. A former member of Congress, Panetta served as chief of staff to President Clinton and was a member of the Baker-Hamilton Commission on Iraq.

The pick for director of national intelligence is retired Admiral Dennis Blair. He once served as Pentagon liaison to the CIA.

We get the views now of two intelligence professionals. Michael Scheuer headed the CIA team responsible for hunting Osama bin Laden in the late 1990s. He’s now a fellow at the Jamestown Foundation. His forthcoming book is “Marching Toward Hell: America and Islam after Iraq.”

And Ray McGovern worked as a CIA analyst for 27 years. He’s now a member of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity, a group of former intelligence officers.

Gentlemen, thank you both for being with us.

And, Ray McGovern, to you first. You think Leon Panetta is a good choice.

RAY MCGOVERN, former analyst, CIA: I think it’s an excellent choice. I think what you just said before about character, integrity, and management skills, I think that’s the name of the game here. I think that Panetta has those.

I think his being an outsider is a virtue, rather than a drawback. He has no association with the abuses of the last decade and more. He can come in and look at things without having to cover up.

He doesn’t need to prove himself. You know, he’s shown himself to be worthy of doing a good job by virtue of his previous experience.

Breaking with the Bush era legacy

Michael Scheuer
Former analyst, CIA
I think the agency has been a dumping ground for both parties for hacks over the past years since Mr. Casey and Judge Webster...they're all previous CIA chiefs who were...they would have to strive on a good day to be mediocrities.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Just quickly, I think I know what you mean, but what do you mean by the abuses of the last decade?

RAY MCGOVERN: Well, I mean torture. I mean rendering. I mean putting people in black holes and not telling their wives or their children, much less the Red Cross. These are abuses. These are actually war crimes under the international law and under the U.S. War Crimes Act passed in 1996 by a Republican-dominated Congress.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you're saying he didn't have anything to do with all that?

RAY MCGOVERN: That's correct.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Michael Scheuer, you don't think it's a good choice.

MICHAEL SCHEUER, former analyst, CIA: No, I think the agency has been a dumping ground for both parties for hacks over the past years since Mr. Casey and Judge Webster, Mr. Woolsey, John Deutch, George Tenet, Porter Goss, these are all...

JUDY WOODRUFF: These are all previous CIA chiefs.

MICHAEL SCHEUER: They're all previous CIA chiefs who were -- I think they would have to strive on a good day to be mediocrities.

We have had a good director now in General Hayden, who has inspired the workforce to be proud of itself. He has supported the expansion of clandestine operations. And, more importantly, he has defended the agency publicly.

And so I really think that we're getting another political party apparatchik to come over and I think with the same results we've seen previously.

And I would take issue on one point with Mr. McGovern, who I have great respect for. But Mr. Panetta was the chief of staff for President Clinton when President Clinton, Richard Clarke, and Sandy Berger were sending the people that the CIA rendered to Egyptian prisons and to Saudi prisons.

And I would think that, if one is worried about torture, one would want to have people held by Americans rather than by Egyptians.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you're saying he has had some connection...

MICHAEL SCHEUER: Well, the whole...

JUDY WOODRUFF: ... with all of this?

MICHAEL SCHEUER: Yes, Ms. Woodruff, I think the whole discussion of rendition and Guantanamo has been to attack President Bush. And, believe me, he has much to be attacked for. But the process of rendering was much more brutal under President Clinton.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, well, let's pick up on that point quickly. Back to you, Mr. McGovern. What about that?

RAY MCGOVERN: Well, you know...

JUDY WOODRUFF: And specifically on Leon Panetta's connection, if there was one.

RAY MCGOVERN: Well, it was a very tenuous connection at best. He was chief of staff at the White House for a couple of years. But the rendition policy has become actually a policy now. It was adopted on a grand scale by the Bush administration.

The idea of rendering people to the Egyptians -- who are well-known for torture techniques -- is really repugnant, I mean, from a moral point of view and also from a utilitarian point of view, because the head of Army intelligence has said, and I quote, "No good intelligence has ever come from abusive techniques."

Panetta has 'nothing to prove'

Ray McGovern
Former analyst, CIA
He knows his way around Washington. He's got nothing to prove with respect to himself. And he also was on the Iraq Study Group, which is a real feather in his cap, because that is one of the first challenges that Obama will face.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let me bring you back to the other point that Mr. Scheuer initially made, and he called -- he said Leon Panetta is just another political apparatchik. How do you respond?

RAY MCGOVERN: Well, I think the other people he mentioned deserve the label he gave them. Panetta is different, nine-term elected representative. He was head of the budget when, all of a sudden, wow, it became balanced, OK? You know, think about that.

He knows his way around Washington. He's got nothing to prove with respect to himself. And he also was on the Iraq Study Group, which is a real feather in his cap, because that is one of the first challenges that Obama will face. And Panetta knows that like the palm of his hand, having been through that process.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Michael Scheuer, in fact, Mr. Obama himself said today, Leon Panetta, obviously, he said somebody who was fully versed in international affairs, in crisis management. He had to evaluate intelligence consistently on a day-to-day basis, he said.

MICHAEL SCHEUER: Well, I think that's, of course, what they would say, isn't it? One would think that the chief of staff -- certainly, I was involved with -- personally with numerous discussions at very senior levels in the White House about rendition. And Mr. Panetta didn't come up in those very much. He also didn't come up in other foreign policy discussions.

So it may well be that he is well-versed in it, but there's certainly nothing -- if you look on the Internet at his curriculum vitae -- there's really nothing to suggest he has any experience worth mentioning.

The importance of experience

Michael Scheuer
Former analyst, CIA
The rationale for keeping Mr. Gates at the Defense Department...was that because we were involved in two wars, we needed experience and continuity. Apparently, that rationale was not used in terms of the intelligence positions.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mr. McGovern, why isn't experience important, putting somebody in charge of that complicated agency at a time like this?

RAY MCGOVERN: Well, I served under nine directors of central intelligence. The best ones were the managers.

John McCone, under President Kennedy, he was from business. He knew which end was up. He knew how to manage a far-flung, complicated organization. Stansfield Turner came from the military world. He knew how to run a ship, and he knew how to run a fleet, and he knew how to run an agency.

And so the premium here is not on expertise in running spies. The premium here is on orchestrating a definite approach to intelligence analysis and collection, which will serve the president in the best way.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about you?

MICHAEL SCHEUER: I think it's -- that sounds very good, but we're in the midst of two wars which we're losing, a rising problem in the Muslim world with Islamic extremism. We're being tied up in knots by the Israeli invasion of Gaza at the moment.

And what struck me is the rationale for keeping Mr. Gates at the Defense Department, which was a very good idea, was that because we were involved in two wars, we needed experience and continuity. Apparently, that rationale was not used in terms of the intelligence positions to be filled with Mr. Panetta and Admiral Blair.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you want to respond to that?

RAY MCGOVERN: The incumbents in the intelligence community were guilty of what I call war crimes and what a lot of other people call war crimes: torture, rendering, the whole business.

There was quite a different situation with respect to the Pentagon, and these people needed to be removed. And what we have is a kind of a good-boys -- or a good-old-boys network here in Washington, where Dianne Feinstein, not a good boy, but certainly one of the network...

JUDY WOODRUFF: Incoming chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

RAY MCGOVERN: Right, and so Mr. Reyes, who is the head of the House Intelligence Committee, they're sort of backsliding on torture even. They're saying, well, maybe the Army manual isn't good enough. Maybe we need to allow some special things for the CIA.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you're saying Leon Panetta has a clear position and is 100 percent against...

RAY MCGOVERN: Yes, well, he's very, very clear on torture, yes. So whatever he may have been involved in, in a peripheral way on early renditions, he knows where he stands on torture.

Dennis Blair's career history

Ray McGovern
Former analyst, CIA
When he was CINCPAC, the chief of the Pacific forces, (Blair) actually coddled the Indonesian military when they brutally suppressed people in East Timor, who were striving for their rights.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me ask you both about Dennis Blair, who is reported to be Mr. Obama's choice to head -- to become the new director of national intelligence. Your take on him, Mr. Scheuer?

MICHAEL SCHEUER: I think, you know, for the first time and since Vietnam, America has a number of two- and three-star generals, who are serving at the moment, who have had combat experience recently, who know how the intelligence community interrelates with the military, both the pluses and the minuses, to bring an admiral who last served in the Pacific out of retirement seems to me to be ignoring a great deal of expertise that's available in the still-serving military.

So I would think that, with all respect for Admiral Blair, there was a lot of people who would have been a better choice.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we should say he will be the boss of the CIA director.

What about Dennis Blair?

RAY MCGOVERN: Nominally. Well, I know very little about him. He has a good reputation as a strategic thinker, but when he was CINCPAC, the chief of the Pacific forces, he actually coddled the Indonesian military when they brutally suppressed people in East Timor, who were striving for their rights.

There's documentary proof out of the State Department and the NSC that he pretty much winked at the instructions he had to get those generals to ease off the torture and the massacre that they did. And he just went ahead and coddled them and gave them to believe that they could go ahead and keep doing that.

MICHAEL SCHEUER: The American -- you know, this whole business on rendition and prisons and the rest of it has been a very politicized issue. The fact is, America is much safer today for the people that have been rendered and imprisoned.

Mr. Obama, Mr. Panetta, Mr. McGovern are all very good at wanting to destroy that function, that operation that has protected America. They have nothing to replace it with.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We are going to have to leave it there. Much more to be said on all of this. But we thank you both for being with us, Ray McGovern and Michael Scheuer. Thank you very much.