To sit through the 9/11 Commission hearings in the Hart Senate Office Building in the spring of 2004 was a painful experience. Flanked by rows of family members whose loved ones had died in the 9/11 attacks, first former FBI Director Louis Freeh admitted that his own antipathy toward computers had left the agency underequipped to track terrorists and their money. Then CIA Director George Tenet confessed that Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda had been around for a decade before the CIA in 1996 actually documented the organization and established a mission station to track it. With precision-and at times evident emotion-Tenet described the enormous difficulty the CIA faced as it tried again and again to plant reliable agents within al-Qaeda's fortified base in Afghanistan. Clearly he understood that the agency's failure to do so had made way for an attack on the United States and the deaths of nearly 3,000 U.S. civilians.
This was no place for a politician to be smoothing around the edges, and that is what would likely have happened had someone like Leon Panetta, President-elect Barack Obama's pick to head the CIA, been in that hot seat. Both Freeh and Tenet are men who spent years wading in the trenches of high-security briefings and closed-door espionage planning sessions. Freeh became a special agent in 1975 and director of the FBI in 1993, a post he held for eight years. Tenet gained his security clearance in the 1980s when became staff director for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and went on to become the second-longest-serving CIA director, from 1997 to 2004. Both men have been filleted openly and excessively for their errors leading up to the attacks, but from their ranks have come a league of counterterrorism, intelligence, and law enforcement experts who have learned from the mistakes, who have reorganized the intelligence-gathering community, and have thwarted countless terror attacks in the years preceding and following 9/11.
That is why even some members of Obama's own party are shell-shocked that the incoming president turned not to one of them but to a Clinton holdover and political maneuverer with no connection to intelligence gathering. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who will chair the Senate Intelligence Committee, indicated Monday she might oppose the Panetta pick: "My position has consistently been that I believe the agency is best served by having an intelligence professional in charge at this time."
Other Democrats, like former Rep. Lee Hamilton, who co-chaired the 9/11 Commission, praised the Panetta nomination, insisting that the eight-term congressman and former Clinton chief of staff regularly handled intelligence material as part of his responsibilities for Clinton's security briefings. But this doesn't appear to have been the case. According to two CIA directors who served under Clinton, he rarely held intelligence briefings. Former CIA Director James Woolsey, picked by Clinton to head the CIA from 1993 to 1995, once famously told a journalist: "Remember the guy who in 1994 crashed his plane onto the White House lawn? That was me trying to get an appointment to see President Clinton." Woolsey said he never had a private meeting with the president and only twice was summoned for semiprivate ones: "It wasn't that I had a bad relationship with the president. It just didn't exist." This while Panetta presided as Clinton's chief of staff.
Likewise, Tenet, who came in under Clinton in 1997 (Panetta left the White House in January 1997), told the commission in 2004 that his daily intelligence briefings were sent to senior White House policy makers via then-National Security Adviser Sandy Berger. He rarely had direct contact with the president and did not know whether he actually saw the briefings. When Bush, who asked Tenet to stay on at the CIA, summoned him for daily face-to-face briefings early on, Tenet told friends he was shocked. "This was a marked change," Tenet told the commission. "The principle difference was that I would see the president. This gets your adrenaline flowing early in the morning."
The difference was that intelligence also was flowing in two directions, with the president asking questions and thereby setting priorities for the intelligence gatherers. "Bin Laden," Tenet told the commission, "became an agenda item early on."
The contrast between the CIA director's relationship with Clinton and with Bush begs a question: Was Clinton Chief of Staff Leon Panetta part of a team that thwarted CIA access to the Oval Office? Or was he part of a team that was too indifferent or otherwise preoccupied to put a priority on daily face-to-face briefings? Whatever the case, Obama's choice of Panetta shows not so much a break with the Bush past as it does a return to a Clinton era that put politics over substance and was defined by indifference to the grittier details of national defense. When it comes to intelligence gathering, our country can't afford that.