Sunday, January 24, 2010

Director of CIA Leon Panetta deflects blame away from himself

In a WaPo op-ed, Director of CIA Leon Panetta said:
As an agency, we have found consolation in the strength and heroism of our fallen colleagues and their families.

We have found no consolation, however, in public commentary suggesting that those who gave their lives somehow brought it upon themselves because of "poor tradecraft." That's like saying Marines who die in a firefight brought it upon themselves because they have poor war-fighting skills.

In his blog, Abu Muqawama, Army Captain and Middle Eastern scholar Andrew Exum said:
[T]he U.S. Marine Corps relies, like the U.S. Army, on a vigorous AAR [After Action Review] process to identify faults in training, leadership and equipment.

One can only hope that the CIA is engaged in a similar process today. But when the director pre-emptively says that the "main lesson" of this loss is that "CIA officers are on the front lines against al-Qaeda and its violent allies", it makes me think the director, at least, is on the defensive. Because that's a pretty anodyne main lesson to draw from this. A visit to any tactical U.S. military unit in Iraq or Afghanistan -- where successes and failings are analyzed and provoke reforms on a daily basis -- tells you it doesn't have to be that way.

The CIA is, of course, conducting an investigation. But an investigation can be a lot different in tone and scope than an AAR. An investigation has a prosecutorial air about it and can focus on factors outside an organization. An AAR, by contrast, should focus on dynamics inside an organization. It should also be conducted in such a way as to encourage honesty from subordinate leaders and participants -- no one should fear for their career.

I say Director Panetta subtly (sneakily? deceptively?) re-characterized criticism which ought more properly be seen as criticism of the CIA's tactics in the conflict - and thus as criticism of CIA management, and thus as criticism of Director Panetta. Seen from this perspective, Panetta's statement is a way of deflecting blame away from himself and onto deceased personnel. Here's the implication of Panetta's statement: agency tactics and procedures are solid; deceased personnel died b/c they deviated from established practice.

Such shifting of blame greatly concerns me. Even if deceased personnel were operating outside of typical procedure: the buck still stops with Panetta. In other words, either CIA has poor tactics (which is Panetta's responsibility), or CIA personnel routinely ignore proper tactics (which is Panetta's responsibility), or the specific deceased personnel were not up to the task and never ought have been assigned to the task (which is Panetta's responsibility).*

I'm not calling for Panetta to be thrown from office (yet). Mistakes happen. Leaders are not omniscient. However, when Panetta deflects blame, he is not showing leadership.

This was the criticism of Panetta's appointment as Director of CIA: Panetta is a political creature who knows nothing about intelligence. And now Director Panetta deflects blame. Deflecting blame is what a politician does. It's not what a military leader does - and Panetta ought properly be seen as a leader who is conducting warfare. Deflecting blame is not what good leaders of large organizations do. Rather, it's what bad leaders do. It's as if Panetta is trying to prove his critics correct.

*Normally, I would include a fourth option, i.e. You are always taking a calculated risk in a war zone: sometimes people get killed. To reduce risk is to reduce effectiveness; to eliminate risk is to eliminate effectiveness.

However, in this case, the fourth option appears invalid. It appears CIA personnel were killed b/c a purported double agent was not searched before being allowed inside the compound. Once in the presence of CIA personnel, the agent set off a bomb which was hidden in his clothing. This appears to be a case of poor tactics/procedures on the part of the CIA.

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