CIA Chief Panetta Winning Over Doubters at the Agency

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Michael Reynolds / EPA

Leon Panetta speaks after being sworn in as CIA director in McLean, Va.

Whatever Leon Panetta lacked in formal intel experience he would make up for with his political smarts. That was one of the chief points made in his favor when the Obama Administration named the former California Congressman and Clinton White House chief of staff as its CIA director. So many CIA veterans were not happy over the summer, when they felt that Panetta had failed to protect the agency from the political backlash over its Bush-era detention and interrogation practices. "There was a feeling [Panetta] had not done enough to defend the CIA from the politicians," says a former agency staffer. "People were asking, 'What's the point in having a so-called political expert as director if he can't do that?' "

Lately, however, Panetta has put those doubts to rest, winning kudos from his troops for successfully defending the agency's turf from Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair. The mood at Langley has always been difficult to measure, since insiders are not allowed to speak to the media. But several former CIA veterans who remain in contact with serving colleagues say spirits were lifted in recent weeks when the White House ruled in the agency's favor on two disputes with the DNI. "People are more upbeat than they have been in a long time," says a retired station chief. "They're finally warming up to Panetta."

After months of disagreement between Panetta and Blair, Vice President Joe Biden and National Security Adviser James Jones ruled that the CIA would continue to have a direct line to the White House on covert operations and that the long-standing policy of CIA station chiefs being the top intelligence officers in all missions abroad would continue. Blair had sought greater responsibility over the covert ops and the right to anoint a non-CIA staffer as intel boss at certain foreign missions.

The disputes may seem arcane to those outside the intelligence community, but many in the CIA were alarmed by what they saw as Blair's interference in the agency's operations. "For some, this was an existential threat. If Blair was allowed to control covert ops, then how long before the whole of the CIA was absorbed into the DNI?" says a former operations official who retired from the agency last year. "Everyone was looking to Panetta to prevent that from happening."

The CIA director, a veteran of Washington battles, is getting credit for beating back Blair, a retired Admiral. "Panetta showed he knows how to stamp on toes in this town," says the retired operations official. "[These] victories have reassured some of the doubters in Langley."

Doubts about Panetta's political skills had arisen in the summer, when President Obama decided to release secret memos about the CIA's controversial interrogation practices at Guantánamo Bay and other secret prisons — and when U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder ordered an investigation into potential wrongdoing by interrogators.

But the turf battles with Blair have resulted in Panetta's being seen in a more positive light, and focused some criticism on Blair instead. "Denny's a good guy, but he should really focus on being the President's principal intelligence adviser, not on the operational stuff," says an Administration official. "Leon, of all people, certainly doesn't need to be micromanaged — and neither do the CIA folks in the field."