A Revival In Langley

Inside Leon Panetta's fight to restore the CIA

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Michele Asselin / Contour / Getty Images for TIME

Leon Panetta

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But current and past senior CIA officials say the downsizing has turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Instead of wasting time worrying about the budget for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, CIA leaders were able to concentrate on their core mission of collecting and analyzing intelligence for policymakers. "Removing the managerial stuff has made them leaner and more muscular," says former acting director John McLaughlin. It "has freed the agency to focus intensely on a lot of other things."

And, apparently, double-check its work. Panetta says the bin Laden mission is a good example of that. On April 26, he held a final briefing on the Abbottabad compound in his office that included 15 team leaders from the CIA CounterTerrorism Center, some from the special-activities division (which runs covert operations) and some from the office of South Asian analysis.

Panetta wanted to get their final opinion of the coming mission. Support was not unanimous, and there were ghosts in the room: some of the officers had been involved in the Carter Administration effort to go after the hostages held by the Iranians; others had been involved in the ill-fated raid against Somali warlords in 1993. Some officials, Panetta says, worried, "What if you go down and you're in a firefight and the Pakistanis show up and start firing? How do you fight your way out?" But he says the agency had second- and third-guessed the problem, arranging for backups and double-backups in the event of snafus. "We'd red-teamed that issue to death," he says.

The biggest change at Langley may be Panetta himself. The boss pushed the spooks much harder than some of their previous leaders had to share information with lawmakers on Capitol Hill in order to build trust — and free up cash for vital missions in return. But Panetta also surprised agency veterans by pushing back when Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. launched an investigation into the destruction by the CIA's top clandestine official, Jose Rodriguez, of videotapes containing interrogations of al-Qaeda leaders. That earned Panetta high marks inside the building, observers say. Though he lost the battle, he helped limit the scope of Holder's investigation.

He also fought a fierce battle over turf with Dennis Blair, the former director of National Intelligence, who wanted to decide who would be in charge of gathering intelligence at foreign posts.

Panetta contested the release of the legal memos that justified "enhanced interrogation techniques" like waterboarding. President Obama, Holder and Panetta say waterboarding constitutes torture; Rodriguez tells TIME that enhanced interrogation techniques provided "the lead information that eventually led to the location of [bin Laden's] compound." Rodriguez says Panetta "has done a fantastic job."

Panetta insists his approach is just common sense. "I said, Look, the key here is to tell the Congress what's going on and to be very up-front about what we're doing, because in the end, if you do that, they may not always like what you're doing, but at least they know that you're being honest with them."

Panetta moves to the Pentagon on July 1 and will be replaced at the CIA by General David Petraeus, who has spent the past decade, on and off, fighting overt and covert wars in South Asia. He watched the mission in Abbottabad from his seventh-floor conference room at CIA headquarters, which had been repurposed into an operations center. The hardest part was waiting to hear that bin Laden was there. When special-ops chief William McRaven finally said they had "Geronimo," using the code word to confirm that bin Laden was in the compound, there was an audible sigh of relief. But it was only when the helicopter took off from the compound with the Seal team and bin Laden's body on board that Panetta's office broke into applause.

The director then went to the White House at 6:30 to oversee and report on the formal identification of bin Laden's body and wrapped up meetings an hour after the President made his announcement of bin Laden's death to the country. As he left the White House, he could hear the crowds in Lafayette Square cheering and waving flags. One chant, he says, was "CIA! CIA!"

"We've really turned a corner," the spymaster said to himself.

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