Lining up Panetta support

LINING UP PANETTA SUPPORT…. Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Jay Rockefeller were quick out of the gate on Monday with negative reactions to Leon Panetta becoming the next head of the CIA. If, however, they hoped to encourage others to join them in opposition to Panetta, Feinstein and Rockefeller are off to a very slow start.

By yesterday afternoon, the Panetta selection was earning positive reviews from most corners. In the House, both the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and the chairman of the Select Intelligence Oversight Panel had endorsed Obama’s choice with some enthusiasm. Former Florida Sen. Bob Graham (D), the former Senate Intelligence Committee chairman, said he was “happily surprised” to hear about Panetta taking the job.

And in the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid gave his approval to the nomination, following endorsements from Intelligence Committee members Evan Bayh, Ron Wyden, Russ Feingold, and Barbara Mikulski. Roll Call characterized Panetta’s likely confirmation as a done deal, with “senators on both sides of the aisle [coming] out Tuesday in support of his nomination for the senior intelligence post.”

As for the Democratic detractors, Obama and his transition team “scrambled to mend a divide” yesterday, and were quick to reach out to Feinstein and Rockefeller to assuage their concerns. As part of the fence-mending, Obama will likely keep Stephen Kappes, a “highly regarded former Marine officer and agency veteran,” on as the CIA’s second-highest ranking official, a move that would not only please Feinstein, but would also reassure career officials at the agency.

Sam Stein added that the quick action seemed to be at least somewhat effective, and Feinstein had “softened her initial stance on the Panetta nomination” by late afternoon.

As for the merit of the nomination itself, Slate‘s Fred Kaplan had a good piece on what Panetta will bring to the agency. Kaplan noted an email from Richard Clarke, who reminded him that Panetta, throughout the 1990s, “was one of a very few people who knew about all of the covert and special-access programs.”

Clarke’s first point is crucial — Panetta knows, from experience, what a president wants and needs from intelligence reports, so he could represent the agency’s views more cogently than many insiders might.

But the final point is important, too. These “special-access programs” — satellites, sensors, and other intelligence-gathering devices whose very existence is known only to those with compartmentalized security clearances — form a welter of costly, overlapping, ill-coordinated, and largely unsupervised projects that are run by private contractors to a greater extent than most people might imagine.

One former CIA official who is familiar with these programs (and who asked not to be identified) speculates that Panetta’s main task might be to clean up not only the agency’s high-profile mess — the “black ops” that have tarnished America’s reputation around the world — but this budgetary-bureaucratic mess as well. Certainly, he knows where the line items are buried to a degree that few insiders can match.

I get the sense that Feinstein and Rockefeller probably shouldn’t invest too heavily in fighting this one. They’re probably going to lose.