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Obama and the spies

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On December 1st, I noticed that President-elect Obama’s top national security leadership team surprisingly did not include choices for the critically important national security positions of Director of National Intelligence and CIA Director. For days before, most reports, many of them based on leaks from the Obama transition, had pointed to Admiral Dennis Blair for DNI and most likely John Brennan, a veteran intelligence professional who advised Obama during the campaign, for the CIA post.

Even more surprising, there was little comment in the press or the blogosphere about the odd absence of the intelligence community from his senior national security roster. Even though the gun smoke was still hanging over the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai, no one asked Obama about it at his announcement news conference. If he has decided on anyone since, he’s keeping it a secret.

I think this is a big mistake. Obama’s been getting a lot of credit – deservedly – for his selections of Hillary Clinton, Bob Gates, and Jim Jones for State, Defense and the NSC. While I have reservations about the wisdom of putting a politician in charge at Foggy Bottom, I agree that it’s a terrific team (as is his economic team) — on balance, smart, professional, experienced, and about as non-political as anything in Washington can be.

But he’s left a gaping hole in the lineup, and the longer he doesn’t fill it, the more likely it will be that the thousands of professionals in the intelligence community, on whom he and all of us depend, will conclude that intelligence is not all that high a priority for the new administration.

The media have begun to take notice, and the story they are telling is not one Obama should want to see gain wider currency. On Wednesday, The New York Times reported that Obama is having a tough time reconciling his campaign criticism of CIA with his need as President for the best professional intelligence leadership and that Brennan was squeezed out in the process:

Last week, John O. Brennan, a C.I.A. veteran who was widely seen as Mr. Obama’s likeliest choice to head the intelligence agency, withdrew his name from consideration after liberal critics attacked his alleged role in the agency’s detention and interrogation program. Mr. Brennan protested that he had been a “strong opponent” within the agency of harsh interrogation tactics, yet Mr. Obama evidently decided that nominating Mr. Brennan was not worth a battle with some of his most ardent supporters on the left.

 The Times noted that this may have caused Obama some trouble at Langley already:

Mark M. Lowenthal, an intelligence veteran who left a senior post at the C.I.A. in 2005, said Mr. Obama’s decision to exclude Mr. Brennan from contention for the top job had sent a message that “if you worked in the C.I.A. during the war on terror, you are now tainted,” and had created anxiety in the ranks of the agency’s clandestine service.

 Today, The Washington Post picked up the theme:

Prominent voices in the intelligence community and the Obama camp have argued that a seasoned professional is needed when the country is waging two wars and a campaign against terrorism, and that a newcomer would face an excessively steep learning curve.

“An outsider will get eaten alive,” said Amy Zegart, an associate professor at the University of California at Los Angeles and a former security adviser to both the Clinton administration and President Bush’s 2000 transition team. “The next CIA director has to walk a fine line between taming the building and transforming it. He’s got to be part cheerleader and part skull-cracker. There is just no room for on-the-job learning.”

I’ll say. Of course, not every “seasoned professional” is the right person to lead U.S. intelligence anymore than every guy with stars is the general to run the army. But there are plenty of good candidates from which Obama can choose. Admiral Blair could certainly step into the DNI’s chair in an instant. Others reported to be under consideration for one or another of the top spots are the current CIA Deputy Director, Stephen R Kappes; Jack Devine, former head of CIA’s Clandestine Service; Jamie Miscik, former head of CIA’s Directorate of Intelligence; Donald M. Kerr, now the Deputy DNI; and John Hamre, who served as Deputy Defense Secretary under President Clinton.

For that matter, Obama could do a lot worse than keeping Mike McConnell as DNI and/or Michael Hayden at CIA, at least for a time. That would cause Obama some political problems as he seeks to break with the Bush era, but it would give him operational continuity in key agencies at a time of multiple crises.  In any case, there is an abundance of talent Obama can tap. He shouldn’t wait any longer.

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