The word spread fast through Langley on Monday afternoon. Within minutes it seemed that everyone from junior press officers to senior directors of operations at the CIA’s Virginia headquarters were talking about the Justice Department’s decision to appoint John Durham, a federal prosecutor, as an independent investigator into whether some of the CIA’s post-9/11 interrogations of enemy combatants exceeded the legal guidelines.
Panetta might yet be the first senior Obama appointment to find the exit door. “We’re finding out,” one official told me, “that just when we think it can’t get worse, it does.”
The announcement was a stunning reversal by the Justice Department’s ethics office from its policy under the Bush administration, and it reopened almost a dozen prisoner-interrogation cases to review for possible criminal behavior by CIA employees and contractors. CIA Director Leon Panetta and top intelligence officials have been simmering for weeks just at the suggestion that what happened Monday might take place. These cases had already been reviewed by prosecutors during the Bush administration, and Justice had then decided that no laws had been broken. But Attorney General Eric Holder reconsidered those decisions once he took office. Last month, according to several news reports, Panetta erupted in a tirade during a meeting with a senior White House staff member over the Holder review.
• John Sifton: What's Missing from the CIA Docs • Big Fat Story: Unraveling the CIA Scandal The CIA, argued Panetta, has been routinely referring cases that might have crossed the legal line to the Justice Department for possible prosecution, so the appointment of a special prosecutor was not only unnecessary but “a slap in the face” to the agency. Particularly galling to Panetta and other senior agency officials was that the CIA had, after the 9/11 attacks, sought and received multiple written assurances that its interrogation methods were lawful.
Monday’s announcement showed that the CIA lost the internal tug of war over whether those cases should be reopened to further investigation.
The real quandary the fallout with Panetta creates for the Obama administration is the possibility that a frustrated Panetta may throw in the towel and quit. If that happens, Obama will be hard pressed to come up with a replacement who carries credibility both inside the halls of Langley and on Capitol Hill. It’s taken Panetta nearly half a year to build up his credentials and earn the trust with those whom he must work at the CIA.
“Panetta has stood up for this agency’s officers,” CIA spokesman George Little told me last month. “He has done so strongly and consistently. He has earned tremendous respect from rank-and-file officers by standing up to those who have questioned their integrity and their adherence to American law.”
Monday’s sobering news came shortly after another body blow to the country’s premier intelligence-gathering agency: President Obama had decided to appoint a special unit of terrorist interrogators, no longer from the CIA, but now only from the FBI.
Word of the special prosecutor’s appointment and the FBI being placed in charge of questioning captured terror suspects capped a bad day for the CIA, probably the worst since the new administration took control in January. Panetta, according to a senior officer in the agency who spoke to The Daily Beast on the condition of anonymity, was also steamed that the CIA was required, as part of a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, to release Monday a voluminous internal 2004 CIA report on torture. Panetta put on a brave face and in a written statement assured CIA employees that the information in the 2004 report from the CIA’s inspector general—highlighting the use of many unauthorized interrogation methods—is “an old story.”
On Monday morning, ABC News reported on recent profanity-laced screaming matches between Panetta and White House officials. As for that, Little told me, “The ABC story is false, inaccurate, wrong, and bogus.”
Reports of Leon Panetta preemptively and aggressively defending the CIA against the White House is one of the last things most intelligence watchers could have imagined just a few months ago. There was a broad resignation at the agency early on when Panetta, a former Clinton White House chief of staff and director of the Office of Management and Budget, was appointed as CIA director. Panetta is a former outspoken critic of the agency, and even Senator Dianne Feinstein, the incoming chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, initially questioned his qualifications.
Insiders were happy that Stephen Kappes, the agency’s second-ranking official, had been retained by Panetta. And although there had been grumbling that Panetta had not taken the best advantage of Kappes, in the last month he has relied on him considerably. The Daily Beast also has learned that while some veterans were disturbed that Panetta had not rushed to defend the CIA when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi accused the agency of lying repeatedly to her and to Congress over what it was doing after the 9/11 attacks, during the last six weeks the director has begun to flex his muscle to protect his intelligence fiefdom. And early fears that he would politicize the agency, as Porter Goss did with his appointment of Republican staff members, have not been borne out.
When the Obama administration made its decision this spring to release the text of Justice Department legal memos about interrogations, which revealed in brutal detail the legal authority the agency had been given to torture terror captives, Panetta firmly opposed it.
One of the more important behind-the-scenes struggles has been with Admiral Dennis Blair, Obama’s pick as director of national intelligence and someone who has let it be known that he does not consider the CIA to be the superstar of U.S. intelligence agencies any longer. Panetta, according to a senior CIA official, has been frustrated by what he perceives to be a smaller role than he expected in the administration’s intelligence team.
There is no love lost between Panetta and Blair, although spokesmen for each have nothing but the nicest things to say about the other. A U.S. official, downplaying any rift, told The Daily Beast: “Panetta and Blair talk often—as you would expect—about a variety of national-security topics, and there’s no daylight between them in their shared commitment to protect the national security. When they’ve had differences, Panetta has helped work through them in a strong, rational way. That’s what the head of an independent federal agency should do, and CIA officers have taken notice.”
If Panetta should leave in a huff after making some progress, the CIA will consider that the White House pulled the rug out from under him. If Obama replaces Panetta with an entrenched CIA critic willing to play along with the hardball approach from the White House and Justice, already low morale will fall off a cliff. And if Obama looks for a director friendlier to the CIA, who is going to want the posting if Panetta can’t find it tolerable?
So the administration has to work hard to keep Panetta in place. But if he continues to wage battles on behalf of his own turf, he might yet be the first senior Obama appointment to find the exit door.
“We’re finding out,” one official told me, “that just when we think it can’t get worse, it does.”
Gerald Posner is The Daily Beast's chief investigative reporter. He's the award-winning author of 10 investigative nonfiction bestsellers, ranging from political assassinations, to Nazi war criminals, to 9/11, to terrorism. He lives in Miami Beach with his wife, the author Trisha Posner.