Swap Panetta and Blair: A Modest Proposal

First, a quick story from when I was working in government.

Not long after the initial establishment of a “Director of National Intelligence,” the DNI CIO held an inaugural “DNI Information Sharing Conference” in Denver in the summer of 2006. I was asked to sit on a panel about “Innovation across the Intelligence Community,” representing the Defense Intelligence Agency and sharing the stage with two counterparts, from the CIA and NSA.  Our panel chair was Mr. CJ Chapla, then the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of the old Intelink Management Office, redubbed “Intelligence Community Enterprise Services,” an office now under the Office of the DNI (ODNI). CJ asked the three of us to describe briefly the goals and projects we were each working on, and in seriatim that’s what we did for 90 minutes or so.

When it was time for questions, the very first audience-member asked: “It seems that each of you are independently working on, and paying for, very similar kinds of technology projects. It would make sense to combine or rationalize the work, so why are you continuing to do it independently?”


CJ smiled – it couldn’t have been a better set-up for a “pro-community-thinking” ODNI argument – and asked us to answer in turn. The NSA person answered first, with a rationale which as I recall boiled down to, “At Ft. Meade we have a very specialized mission, and our mission needs are very particular, so we need our own systems, and data, and architecture,” etc. etc. etc.   The CIA person went next, almost as if there were an echo in the room: “CIA’s mission is unique in the community, we have specialized mission needs, we need our own systems,” etc. etc. etc.  It was my turn. I answered: “Why do we do it? Because he lets us!” whereupon I slapped the podium and pointed at C.J., as the representative of the DNI. 

CJ smiled again. I pointed out that ODNI reviewed and approved all of our budgets, was supposed to exercise oversight, and was supposed to crack down on the agency-specific mentality on display that day.  I argued that left to their own devices, bureaucratic organizations focus inwardly and protect their “equities” to the exclusion of communitarian goals. Without a strong DNI and DNI-CIO hand, the information technology wing of each IC agency would likely continue on its way.

(I also pointed out that at DIA we had proven that a different mindset and IT orientation could work – we were busily planning the roll-up of independent IT operations at the J2 organizations of each U.S. military command, and taking them under the wing of a single defense intelligence enterprise, DoDIIS. More about that effort in a contemporary SIGNAL Magazine story from AFCEA, which described it as “consolidating 11 separate enterprises into a single collaborative grid.)

Why, irony of ironies, the theme of the DISCO conference was: “Dare to Share.”


Panetta and Blair: Who gets the top bunk?

logo-cia-dni2I’ve spent a couple of days mulling over the “officially confirmed rumors” of the appointments of the two key intelligence officials in the Obama administration: Leon Panetta as CIA Director and Dennis Blair as Director of National Intelligence.  One thing in particular has been puzzling me: why doesn’t Obama reverse those roles?

I don’t share the criticism that is attaching to the Panetta apointment, at least the main “no-experience” line of criticism: today’s Washington Post writes that “current and former intelligence officials expressed sharp resentment over Obama’s choice of Leon E. Panetta”:   

[An] official who had worked with President Bill Clinton’s national security team while Panetta was chief of staff said he had no recollection of Panetta taking an active role in intelligence briefings or discussions of CIA policy and practice. “He just didn’t make an impression,” said the official…. A widely held view among intelligence officials was that Obama’s team had decided to automatically disqualify any candidate who might have been seen as tainted by association with the controversial interrogation and detention policies of the Bush presidency — essentially anyone who held a management job in the past eight years.    Washington Post, 1/7/09

The ten years I spent living in Palo Alto and San Jose, California – many of them working in politics and local government for the legendary “Mayor of Silicon Valley” Tom McEnery – meant that I met Leon many times, doing fundraising, community conferences, that kind of thing.  For much of that time he was a popular member of Congress just over the hill in Monterey and Santa Cruz. His role in the Northern California political scene was solid – he was likable, competent, and smart, which in the minds of many Bay Area political analysts put him in contrast with the counterweight San Francisco political establishment (let’s just say that the strained relations with Dianne Feinstein have long roots).  Panetta could handle any job in Washington.

My puzzlement, though, is at the placement of Panetta and Blair in those two particular jobs. 

I believe a more effective arrangement would be to appoint Panetta as the DNI and Blair as head of CIA.  I wager to say that if those appointments had been announced at first, there would have been no “uproar” over Panetta’s role.

Here’s a quick cut at my own rationale:

  • The DNI was created to whip the intelligence community into shape and break down the insular, agency-focused stovepipes.  Having “the high-profile Panetta at CIA and the low-key Blair at DNI” (that’s a characterization by David Ignatius in an op-ed this morning) seems to fly in the face of that critical reform, and might actually retard the effort to have the “community” live up to that moniker.
  • The main argument which Panetta backers make for him is his general managerial excellence – presumably he’ll whip CIA into shape through budgetary wizardry and management practices, learned in his OMB days. But ODNI is supposed to be exercising community-wide budget authority, and the reform movement to get tight-fisted central control over individual agency budgets could be subverted, not helped, by putting a crafty budgeteer in place leading one agency.
  • Blair’s experience by contrast is operational – which it could be argued is poorly suited for the other nine-tenths of the DNI job, particularly in an Obama administration pursuing community-wide reform, development of soft power, and significantly less reliance on military operations as levers of state.
  • The single aspect of the DNI’s job for which Blair is undeniably better suited than Panetta based on resumes – the role of briefing the President in person each morning and in crisis – is not to be trivialized, but it is one which ironically Panetta sat through for years as President Clinton’s chief of staff.  He knows better than almost anyone that presidents are often ill-served by intelligence professionals who aren’t bringing the right information to the PDB, or asking the right questions of the respective agencies who contribute to it.

I’m a realist – a swap like this won’t happen, even though others are beginning to wonder the same thing e.g. Mike Galdo, the DC-based international lawyer who’s active on Twitter, who wrote this morning: “Panetta at DNI makes more sense (knows bureaucracy) than as CIA Director. Intelligence community still a mess.”  With the Richardson withdrawal and the Senate in a mess, the new President will want to show decisiveness, not confusion.

Assuming that these nominations are confirmed, I’ll be watching over the first year as the relative centers-of-gravity settle between Blair and Panetta, and how they balance their roles.  We might all hope that we won’t detect any chafing by Panetta at Blair’s intimate role with President Obama, when it is Panetta himself who sat in a West Wing office for years. And we might hope not to see any ODNI exasperation at budget wizardry on behalf of one agency alone by the old OMB hand Panetta.  We’ll need to watch, basically, for signs of who is number one and who is number two.

At the beginning of each episode of the classic 1960s British spy-cult show “The Prisoner,” a little exchange was replayed where — for once — Patrick McGoohan got to ask the questions himself of his jailer:  

“Who are you?”

“I am the new No. 2.”

“Who’s No. 1?”

[Pause] “You are No. 6.”


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12 Responses

  1. I was thinking same thing (but of course, you said it a lot better). DNI needs a budget wonk and someone who knows how to wrangle bureaucracy. CIA needs operational leader and motivator to get them moving in the right direction again. I hope it all works out but I’m not sold at this point either guy lasts very long which isn’t good at all.


  2. Hi – saw your twitter comment on Panetta yesterday and that fed into my thinking as well. Fingers crossed; these are two supremely talented fellows after all and it’s entirely achievable to work out a balanced relationship. It’s just not *optimal* and that’s what I was getting at.


  3. Could the Prisoner be both No. 1 and No. 6? Hard question to answer, at least for the Prisoner. Do you think Obama intends for Panetta and Blair to retain, even use, similar ambiguity?


  4. Heather, you’re smarter than I am. I can’t figure that out myself… 🙂


  5. Insightful post. I comment on it on my blog. Thank you!


  6. […] promixity to power in the CIA and the ODNI—comments on L. Shepherd’s “modest proposal” In an earlier transmission I riffed on a study by Garcia and Tor that suggested that more competitors tended to result in less competition. Similarly, in the courtly literatures—e.g. Gracian’s Art of Worldly Wisdom, Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier—power is always power in relation, and power as it derives from the center, which in the era meant royal or ecclesiastical power. Power is always power in opposition. The position or the portfolio that you held only had meaning in relation to everyone else’s position or portfolio. Now consider the Panetta and Blair appointments. […] “I’m a realist – a swap like this won’t happen,” writes Lewis Shepherd in a Shepherd’s Pi blog burst titled Swap Panetta and Blair: A Modest Proposal […]


  7. Wow what a great idea! At least I think it is. I guess others may consider this thoughtcrime.



  8. double-plus-ungood 🙂


  9. Disagree. Blair will give Obama a better look at intel than Panetta could possibly accomplish. Clinton knew that when he gave his fellow Rhodes scholar to a fourth star.

    I went to school with him. He is the right man, Lewis. Nuff said.


  10. No intention to discredit your schoolchum, though I would rather you not have to reach back that far to provide evidence of qualifications. My point was simply that I guess I have a different impression of what a DNI would most effectively do – and that Panetta fits that job description better. My version of what a DNI would do is driven pretty closely by the original 9/11 commission recommendations. And my impression of what an operational-agency director should be doing, i.e. director of CIA, would fit Blair better.

    But we’ll agree to disagree on the hypothetical. Blair has the DNI job now, so he’s got my support and my attentive interest in his success.


  11. […] president-elect announced his names for DNI and CIA director, I put forth this idea:  ”Swap Blair and Panetta: A Modest Proposal.”  In it I wondered, between the two of them, “Who gets the top […]


  12. Lewis I’m amazed at how things have played out and how accurate and helpful your context has been in this situation. Thanks for writing and please keep the thoughts coming.


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