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POLITICS-US: Obama Intel Picks Send Mixed Message

WASHINGTON, Jan 9 2009 (IPS) - Announcing his choices for top intelligence positions on Friday, President-elect Barack Obama was lauded by some for breaking strongly with the policies of the outgoing Pres. George W. Bush administration, while other observers offered sharp criticisms.

“It’s hard to overstate the importance of good intelligence in the 21st century,” Obama said at the press conference where he made the official announcements. “Good intelligence is not a luxury, it is a necessity.”

The picks, for some critics, represent mixed messages on Obama’s view of the intelligence community, but there may be more going on than some of the superficial criticisms acknowledge.

The choice of former Pres. Bill Clinton’s chief of staff and former Office of Management and Budget (OMB) director Leon Panetta to head up the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) drew criticism in some circles for appointing an “outsider” to run an agency that is notoriously protective of its bureaucracy, but others praised the choice as a strong player who can reform the troubled agency.

Then naval Admiral Dennis Blair (Ret.) was chosen to be the Director of National Intelligence, raising concerns about the militarisation of intelligence that Obama had campaigned against.

In a rather surprising move, former interim-CIA Counter-Terrorism Centre (CTC) chief John Brennan was picked to be a top advisor to the president on terrorism issues.


Brennan was considered a lead contender for the top CIA slot until he withdrew his name because of expected difficulties during confirmation hearings due to his closeness to George Tenet, the former CIA chief who is widely blamed for harsh interrogations and politicising intelligence in the run up to the Iraq invasion.

It’s the very repudiation of those interrogation techniques and the practice of “cherry-picking” intelligence that is being celebrated by some Bush critics.

At the Washington Independent, Spencer Ackerman weighed in with his excitement not for the picks, but rather for the thinking that Obama said they represented.

“More important than anything [the appointees] said at their rollout this morning…were two things President-elect Barack Obama said that directly repudiate the intelligence regime of the previous administration,” wrote Ackerman, citing Obama’s stated opposition to fixed intelligence and “torture and interrogations”.

Obama commented that Washington had learned “tough lessons” from the Bush era.

“[W]e must insist on assessments grounded solely in the facts,” he said, “and not seek information to suit any ideological agenda.”

Hinting at torture and harsh interrogations, issues on which Obama’s opposition to the permissive Bush policies is well documented, he said, “We must adhere to our values as vigilantly as we protect our safety, with no exceptions.”

But his sternness in these declarations and his pick of Brennan as a key adviser left some critics wondering.

“It’s a puzzle to me why Obama has relied so much on Tenet’s cronies,” said Melvin Goodman, a fellow at the Centre for International Policy and a longtime CIA veteran, citing Brennan’s close working relationship with Tenet. “I’m still surprised that he has this special relationship with Brennan.”

Indeed, it was Brennan’s support of harsh techniques, notably excluding waterboarding, and extraordinary renditions that caused groups of liberal bloggers to “scuttle” his nomination, though some insist that Brennan merely knew that he would face a tough confirmation battle.

Brennan also used to run a consulting firm called Analysis Corp. that dealt with advising the government and private business on dealings in violent parts of Asia, South America and Africa.

The firm was purchased by a British-based contractor, Global Strategies, which has appeared in the news for problems with its hired soldiers in the Middle East. Obama’s transition team reportedly vetted any connections between Brennan and the parent company and found no improprieties on Brennan’s part.

But Brennan was known to be a close adviser to Obama and will also, according to an unsourced report in the Washington Post, act as a Middle East adviser.

Brennan has some controversial views on Iran, in particular, that jibe with Obama’s campaign views on a new approach to diplomacy with the major U.S. adversary.

In an academic article in July, Brennan called for softening the U.S. rhetoric against Iran and for the Iranian-backed Shia group in Lebanon, Hezbollah, to be brought into the fold as a legitimate Lebanese political actor.

But Brennan, because his role is not subject to confirmation, will likely not be the subject of a heated political fight. That distinction will probably go to Panetta, who has found scores of detractors and supporters already.

Notably, incoming Senate intelligence committee chair Dianne Feinstein criticised Obama’s choice by calling publicly for “an intelligence professional”, potentially creating a hurdle for Panetta’s confirmation. But since that time, Feinstein has met with Panetta and softened her criticisms.

However, her call echoed some criticisms from the CIA, where outsides are viewed with scepticism.

One supporter said that criticisms in the press may be overblown and differentiated between clandestine operations, where Panetta may be “seen as a liberal” (in a disparaging sense), and the analytical part of the CIA, where Panetta is likely to get a better reception.

“Even in the [clandestine] operations directorate you have people that are opposed to enhanced interrogation techniques and renditions and that sort of thing,” Goodman said, emphasising that neither the CIA nor any division within it is a monolith.

Goodman also reads further into the trio of picks as a unit. He doesn’t know Panetta, but called him “tough-minded” and said he has a “great deal of integrity”.

“This is an impressive guy – the kind that the CIA hasn’t had in 30 years,” he told IPS. “This is an outstanding appointment.”

Furthermore, Goodman has strong views on the organisation of intelligence, such as his disdain for the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) position, which he thinks centralises intelligence too much, stifling intelligence. He hopes that the selection of Blair, someone without notable intelligence-specific acumen, to DNI may herald a reorganisation of the intelligence structure created hastily under Bush.

“I think Panetta is so strong that Obama may be trying to enhance the CIA and reduce the visibility of the DNI position,” he told IPS. “Panetta is much too savvy a political operative to be reporting to someone such as Blair.”

 
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