Return to

May 5, 2011
Notes from the Pentagon

Panetta's rise
Political power watchers in Washington took note of the leading role played by CIA Director Leon E. Panetta in the successful military operation to take down Osama bin Laden.

The covert program not only propelled elite Navy SEAL counterterrorism commandos into the limelight, but the CIA can now boast of renewed paramilitary prowess.

Mr. Panetta, who will soon move to the Pentagon to replace outgoing Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, was the equivalent of the "military commander" for the operation, said a U.S. official, along with No. 2 commander Navy Vice Adm. William R. McRaven, commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command.

It was Mr. Panetta and Adm. McRaven, based at CIA headquarters in Virginia, who appeared together on a video screen inside the White House situation room to relay in real time the details of Sunday's operation against bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Mr. Panetta told the president and his key advisers that "Geronimo," the Apache code name used for bin Laden, was "EKIA," or enemy killed in action, during the strike.

Mr. Panetta now is expected to ride the operation's success to a smooth Senate confirmation as defense secretary in coming weeks.

The CIA role in the operation represents a step forward for the agency's effort to reinvent itself as a premier human intelligence gathering center, especially for counterterrorism paramilitary activities. It follows a low point - the December 2009 terrorist bombing by a double agent who killed seven officers in Khost, Afghanistan.

It was less than 10 years ago, according to former intelligence officials, that CIA covert action had atrophied and was in disarray after the Sept. 11 attacks.

In fact, the Sept. 11 commission, mainly through the efforts of commissioner and former Navy Secretary John Lehman, all but dismissed the rebuilding of CIA covert action capabilities as hopeless.

The commission, in its final report, noted several CIA-led efforts that failed to stop bin Laden in the 1990s and the CIA's risk-averse culture during the presidential administration of Bill Clinton. It recommended transferring all covert action from the CIA to the Special Operations Command.

The agency resisted, and it was one of the panel's few recommendations that were ignored.

The commission report revealed the 1998 CIA-led plan to capture bin Laden in Sudan and send him to New York for prosecution on terrorism charges. The plan was scrapped after CIA Director George J. Tenet worried that "people might be killed, including bin Laden," according to the commission report.

That same year, the Clinton administration launched an unsuccessful cruise missile strike on bin Laden's camp in Afghanistan. The al Qaeda leader apparently was tipped off before the attack and escaped.

The CIA also covertly tried to get Afghan warlords to capture or kill bin Laden, but they failed four times. Another planned 1999 missile strike was called off at the last minute over worries about causing too many casualties.

The Clinton administration also failed to unleash U.S. special operations forces against bin Laden in 1999. The commission report quoted retired Army Lt. Gen. William Boykin, a senior Pentagon intelligence official, as saying of the special ops failure: "Opportunities [to get bin Laden] were missed because of an unwillingness to take risks and a lack of vision and understanding."

The agency apparently learned the lesson of the past. As a former high-ranking U.S. intelligence official put it, CIA covert action appears to be waging war and is no longer just "trying to fight terrorism by passing out bags of money."

'The Tausch' demoted?
Undersecretary of State Ellen Tauscher, who has been leading U.S.-Russian missile defense talks that are largely kept secret from Congress and the public, was given a demotion of sorts, Inside the Ring was told by a senior U.S. national security official.

Mrs. Tauscher, a former Democratic congresswoman from California, has annoyed colleagues and critics with her abrasive style. In meetings, she has been known to refer to herself as "the Tausch."

Word from the Pentagon is that Mrs. Tauscher is no longer the lead Obama administration official for the U.S.-Russian talks on missile defenses, which the administration has been holding with Moscow and working toward what critics on Capitol Hill have said is the questionable goal of concluding a technology-sharing agreement with Russia.

Instead, the Pentagon's Jim Miller, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, is now the key negotiator, even though Mrs. Tauscher technically will be in charge overall.

An aide to Mrs. Tauscher said Inside the Ring is "misinformed" about her position in the talks.

According to the aide, Mrs. Tauscher and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov have overall responsibility for U.S.-Russian missile defense talks, while Mr. Miller and Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antaonov deal with developing "practical steps."

The Miller-led group met last month and issued a vague statement April 11 that said the two sides "discussed various military policy and technical aspects of potential cooperation in the field of missile defense in Europe."

The Pentagon's Joint Staff and the Russian General Staff also conduct talks.

NATO cancels exercise
One significant casualty of the Obama administration's stalemated military operation against Libya, involving mainly NATO military forces, is that the alliance canceled one of its most important annual military exercises.

The Crisis Management Exercise-11, code named CMX-11, was to have kicked off March 23, but the Libya attack against Col. Moammar Gadhafi's forces forced it to be canceled.

Some in the Obama administration are quietly cheering the decision to put off the exercise because it was expected to upset the Russians. According to a NATO official, the exercise would have involved an "Article V scenario" involving a simulated attack and possible nuclear strike on NATO by Russia.

"Too inflammatory of Russia" was the way it was described by a U.S. official who supported the exercise and opposes the Obama administration's conciliatory reset policy with Moscow.

A NATO spokesman confirmed that the exercise was postponed because of Libya and said no new date has been set but that the war game could be rescheduled for later in the year.

So long, Gates
With Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates set to depart soon in favor of CIA Director Leon E. Panetta, Inside the Ring reminds readers that 10 months ago it reported in this space that there was a good chance he would leave the Pentagon after presenting the next defense budget. He did, and now he's going.

Special correspondent Rowan Scarborough reported the following item in July under the headline "Gates gazing," which included a denial from his spokesman that has proved false:

"One of the ongoing pastimes inside the Pentagon is to speculate on the departure date for Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates. Mr. Gates fueled the guessing game from Day One, when President Obama asked him to be a holdover from President George W. Bush's administration. ... Mr. Gates has not acted as a caretaker, that's for sure, what with a new strategy for Afghanistan, weapon systems canceled, four four-star generals fired on his watch and a new drive to lower Defense Department overhead.

"Sources tell [Inside the Ring] the latest date bandied about inside the building for departure is April. By then, Mr. Gates will have presented the 2012 budget, with new cost savings. Most troops will be out of Iraq and Army Gen. David H. Petraeus will have, the Pentagon hopes, turned the tide of battle in Afghanistan.

"But Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell calls the April speculation 'Nonsense. Untrue. The folks you are speaking to know not of what they speak.' "

Return to