Barack Obama brought a reputation for “cool” to the White House, bordering on indifference, but ABC News says that only represents the veneer. The new administration has pushed the CIA to the brink of rebellion and CIA chief Leon Panetta to the brink of resignation. Panetta launched a “profanity-laced tirade” at Attorney General Eric Holder over his plans to open investigations into CIA interrogations during the Bush administration, and now officials tell ABC to expect some turnover in national security positions:
A “profanity-laced screaming match” at the White House involving CIA Director Leon Panetta, and the expected release today of another damning internal investigation, has administration officials worrying about the direction of its newly-appoint intelligence team, current and former senior intelligence officials tell ABC News.com. …
A White House spokesperson, Denis McDonough, said reports that Panetta had threatened to quit and that the White House was seeking a replacement were “inaccurate.”
According to intelligence officials, Panetta erupted in a tirade last month during a meeting with a senior White House staff member. Panetta was reportedly upset over plans by Attorney General Eric Holder to open a criminal investigation of allegations that CIA officers broke the law in carrying out certain interrogation techniques that President Obama has termed “torture.”
A CIA spokesman quoted Panetta as saying “it is absolutely untrue” that he has any plans to leave the CIA. As to the reported White House tirade, the spokesman said Panetta is known to use “salty language.” CIA spokesman George Little said the report was “wrong, inaccurate, bogus and false.”
Perhaps it is no coincidence that the Obama administration leaked its new plans today for interrogating high-value terrorist detainees, which involve moving authority out of the CIA:
President Obama has approved the creation of an elite team of interrogators to question key terrorism suspects, part of a broader effort to revamp U.S. policy on detention and interrogation, senior administration officials said Sunday.
Obama signed off late last week on the unit, named the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group, or HIG. Made up of experts from several intelligence and law enforcement agencies, the interrogation unit will be housed at the FBI but will be overseen by the National Security Council — shifting the center of gravity away from the CIA and giving the White House direct oversight. …
The administration is releasing the new guidelines on the day when what it sees as the worst practices of the Bush administration are being given another public airing. New details of prisoner treatment are expected to be included in a long-awaited CIA inspector general’s report being unveiled Monday about the spy agency’s interrogation program. The report could set off a fresh debate between members of the current administration and the previous one over whether such tactics are necessary to prod detainees into cooperation and, ultimately, keep the country safe.
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. is also considering whether to appoint a criminal prosecutor to investigate past interrogation abuses. Obama and White House officials have stated their desire to look ahead on national security; White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said last week that the administration is eager to keep “going forward” and that “a hefty litigation looking backward is not what we believe is in the country’s best interest.”
There is a great deal of political danger in keeping interrogations within the White House. First, it removes all of the controls Congress demanded on intelligence and analysis to keep the White House from politicizing both. Those controls came in the form of an extended bureaucracy, the Directorate of National Intelligence, which sits above the CIA and other intelligence agencies. Now, the White House will get at least a portion of its critical intelligence directly, and can spin it without having to worry about Congressional oversight. That’s a bad direction to take.
Second, if anything goes wrong in those interrogations, the White House will have direct responsibility for it. No longer can Congress or the executive branch hold the CIA responsible for any crimes committed — or more importantly, for the inability to get critical intel from HVDs. When attacks occur, fingers will point back to the people running the HIG, meaning Obama and his West Wing team. Not only does that make for bad national-security policy, it practically invites deep political damage.
Besides, who at the White House will be the expert that runs the HIG outside of CIA and DNI control? These are the same people that appointed Panetta to run the CIA with no intel experience whatsoever, and had a 31-year-old campaign staffer run GM’s bankruptcy proceedings. Who will run HIG — David Plouffe?
Even Panetta apparently sees the idiocy of this approach, or at least the fact that he’s about to lose a major turf war within the administration. And that provokes the question of whether Panetta’s appointment was specifically designed to produce this result. Had Obama appointed a real intel professional to the position of CIA Director, could he have gotten away with this transfer of authority? It would be very doubtful. Having a political hack in this spot reduces the ability for professional intel leaders to take their case to the media, since in this case we would likely be trading one political hack for another.
Congress should ensure that this position has significant Congressional oversight. It looks like Obama’s about to carve out an interrogations czar with no accountability outside of the West Wing, and that’s very, very dangerous indeed.