At one of his first meetings with his senior national security staff, U.S. President Barack Obama reportedly pronounced (NYT): "The CIA gets what it needs." Ever since, the CIA has enjoyed great power and latitude in executing Obama's foreign policy, and the line between intelligence and the Pentagon has become increasingly fuzzy. That Obama is expected to announce today CIA Director Leon Panetta as his choice to replace departing Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and Gen. David Petraeus as his pick for CIA director reflects the further erosion of what was once a high wall between the CIA and the Defense Department.
The CIA has become central to the Obama administration's approach to counterterrorism. Most notably, the CIA controls the United States' campaign of drone strikes in Pakistan, described by Panetta as "frankly, the only game in town in terms of confronting or trying to disrupt the al-Qaeda leadership." Of the 236 drone strikes conducted by the CIA since 2004, more than 192 have happened under Obama. Another, lower-profile indication of the CIA's power occurred in 2009 when Panetta won a turf battle with then-director of national intelligence Dennis Blair over the CIA's right to retain a direct line to the White House on covert activities and have CIA station chiefs be the senior intelligence official at missions abroad.
Part of the explanation for the CIA's growing influence is its greater integration with the military. The CIA drones that fly over Afghanistan are reportedly (Wired) overseen by an Air Force operations center, and the Air Force loans its armed drones in Afghanistan to the CIA for strike missions in Pakistan. And in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as on the clandestine battlefields of Somalia and Yemen, the CIA is described as working well with its counterparts in the military's special operations community. Indeed, an active-duty U.S. military official told me that one of the first meetings Gen. Petraeus has every morning is with the current CIA station chief in Kabul.
Petraeus will have fewer resources and authorities directly at his disposal as the director of central intelligence, making this move an effective demotion just as when he went from serving as the head of U.S. Central Command to become commander of U.S. Forces-Afghanistan in June 2010. Under current U.S. law, the CIA director "shall report to the director of national intelligence regarding the activities of the Central Intelligence Agency." Although the largest producer of all-source national security intelligence and home to the National Clandestine Service, which conducts covert operations, the CIA is but one of sixteen agencies that serve under the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
Panetta's nomination as defense secretary reflects the continued move away from the blue-sky thinking, sweeping pronouncements, and micromanaging of Donald Rumsfeld, defense secretary under George W. Bush. Much like Gates, who set the needed tone of candor, and held senior leaders to higher standards of accountability, Panetta should be a steady hand at managing the scheduled troop withdrawals in Iraq and Afghanistan, and overseeing President Obama's plan to cut $400 billion in new defense spending through 2023.
Given that both Panetta and Petraeus were integral to the development and implementation of Obama's national security strategies to date, we should not expect significant changes in America's engagement with the world. If anything, these appointments, both of which are likely to have wide support in Congress, indicate that Obama intends to stay the no-drama, smooth-process course on foreign policy through the remainder of his first term.