Leon Panetta, who took over as the 19th Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) on February 13,2009, is presently on his firstoverseas tour. After having visited India from March 18 to 20,2009, he proceeded to Pakistan for discussions with Pakistani Army andintelligence officers and political leaders.
2.Panetta, who chose India for his first overseas visit since assuming office, arrived in New Delhi, along with Peter Burleigh, a 67-year-oldretired American career diplomat, who has been designated as the "Interim Ambassador" of the US to India . It has been reported that hewill act as the Charge d' Affaires (CDA) in the US Embassy in New Delhi till an Ambassador is nominated by President Barack Obama and hisnomination is confirmed by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
3. The Obama Administration is understood to have put all major decisions relating to India including political-level bilateral visits at Cabinetlevel and the designation of the new Ambassador on hold till the elections to the Lok Sabha, the lower House of the Indian Parliament, are over and a new Government is in position in New Delhi by May-end. However, this decision would not affect exchange of visits at the seniorlevel of bureaucrats. Moreover, Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh is due to meet President Barrack Obama for the first time in the marginsof the G-20 summit at London next month.
4. Panetta, whose parents had migrated to California from Italy, had served as a member of the House of Representatives from one of theconstituencies of California, from 1977 to 1993. He served as the Chairman of the Budget Committee of the House for the last four years ofhis term in the House. He then became Director of the Office of Management and Budget. From July 1994 to January 1997, he served as theChief of Staff to the then President Bill Clinton.
5. As the White House Chief of Staff, he became close to Bill and Hillary Clinton. It is believed that he stilll maintains this close personalfriendship with the Clintons and that Bill Clinton played a role in the surprise decision of Obama in January last to nominate him as the newDirector of the CIA, despite the fact that the 70-year-old Panetta, who has become the oldest chief of the CIA in its history, has never hadany exposure to professional intelligence work except for three years from 1964 to 66 when he had served as an army intelligence officer.His area expertise is limited to Iraq. He had served as a member of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group set up by the Congress in 1996 to makean independent assessment of the war in Iraq.
6. Obama's nomination of a non-professional with no past exposure to the work of the CIA as the new Director came in for criticism not onlyfrom some retired officers of the US intelligence community, but also from some members of the Congressional Intelligence OversightCommittees. Despite this, his nomination was confirmed and he took over as the new Director. In his first address to the CIA officers aftertaking over, Panetta, who has a keen sense of humour, referred jocularly to references to him in some sections of the media as the oldest Director of the CIA and reportedly pointed out that the dog, which won a popular annual dog show this year, was 10 years old.
7. It is believed that Obama chose him as the Director because of his excellent reputation in the past as a good manager. Knowledgablepeople say that Obama, who is keen to tone up administration and man management in the CIA and rid it of unethical practices in the waragainst terrorism, felt that only an outsider would be able to do it without covering up past unethical practices. Moreover, under GeorgeTenet as the Director during the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the CIA had come in for criticism for avoiding projecting the true groundsituation to President George Bush. It allegedly told Bush and his Vice-President Dick Cheney what they liked to be told and not what theyought to have been told. Panetta is expected to correct the analytical methods of the CIA in order not to let its reports and analyses beinfluenced by the preconceptions of the President.
8. In his first message to the CIA officers, Panetta has been quoted as saying: "When President Obama asked if I would accept thisassignment, he said he wanted someone he could trust, who was independent, and who would call them as he sees them. Throughout my40-year career in government, I have made it a point to speak honestly to my colleagues, my coworkers, my constituents, and my President.I hope that we can speak honestly to each other and to those we serve."
9. Till 2004, the Director of the CIA was also the Director, Central Intelligence, and in that capacity, in addition to running theCIA,co-ordinated the working of the entire intelligence community. In 2004, acting on a recommendation of the National Commission, whichenquired into the 9/11 terrorist strikes, Bush separated the two functions and created a separate and a higher level post of Director NationalIntelligence to handle the work of co-ordination. From the pre-2004 status of the first among equals, Director CIA has now become oneamong equals in the intelligence community. Despite this, he occupies a very high position in policy-making relating to national securityand in that capacity, Panetta will be in the inner core of Obama's advisers.
10. If Obama chose Hillary Clinton, Secretary of State, to pay the first overseas visit at the Cabinet level to Japan, South Korea, Indonesiaand China to underline the importance attached by his administration to this region, it is significant that the first overseas visit of an innercore policy adviser has been to India and Pakistan. This underlines the importance attached by Obama to the US relations with India and tothe importance of Pakistan from the point of the fight against terrorism.
11. It is interesting that the CIA, India's Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW) and Intelligence Bureau (IB) are having new heads who took overduring the course of the last 11 weeks.Rajiv Mathur, a career intelligence officer, took over as the Director of the IB, on January 1,2009, K.C.Verma, as Secretary (R), the head of the R&AW, on February 1,2009, and Panetta as the Director of the CIA on February 13,2009. WhereasPanetta is totally new to the profession, Mathur and Verma have over two decades of exposure to professional intelligence work. Theywould have got going from the moment they took over, but Panetta will take time to get a hang of the operatuional work before he is able toimpart his stamp.
12. It is equally interesting to note that just as Obama nominated Panetta as the chief of the CIA to tone up its man management andadministration and to rid it of unhealthy practices, the Manmohan Singh Government reportedly inducted K.C.Verma from the IB to the R&AWwith a similar objective. There has been as much criticism of the internal functioning of the R&AW as there was of the CIA.
13. One could assess without fear of contradiction that the New Delhi visit of Panetta, who is still to find his feet as an intelligence chief,would have had a much larger political objective for Obama. Firstly, to reassure Indian leaders that the first visit of Hillary Clinton to Chinadoes not mean the downgrading of the US relations with India. Secondly, to reassure India of continued US assistance in the investigationof the 26/11 terrorist strike in Mumbai and continued US pressure on Pakistan to investigate the case seriously and sincerely. Thirdly, toassess the pre-election political scene in India for his President.
14. The nomination of Burleigh as an "interim Ambassador" and CDA and his travelling together with Panetta to New Delhi underline the USinterest in monitoring and assessing the pre-election political scene. The Obama Administration's avoidance of any major policy initiativesand pronouncements with regard to India is motivated by its desire to keep its options open and not to burn in advance its bridges with anydispensation coming to office in New Delhi after the elections. The US has many retired diplomats , who had spent many years of theircareer in the sub-continent. All of them are quite knowledgeable on India--- but each only on some aspects of India.Some are knowledgeableon the Congress Party, some on the BJP and its Hindutva group amd some others, who had served in the sub-continent in the cold waryears, are knowledgeable on the communist parties and their suspected links with the then USSR and China.
15. Burleigh belongs to the third category. He had his first exposure to the sub-continent as a Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal in the early1960s. From the Peace Corps, he gravitated to the State Department and spent some years of his diplomatic career in Nepal, India and SriLanka. As a junior diplomat, he had served in the US Embassy in Colombo from 1968 to 1970 and in New Delhi from 1973 to 1975. He alsoserved as the US Ambassador to Sri Lanka from 1995 to 1997. In one of the web sites of the old Peace Corps volunteers, he had enteredthe following post about himself: "After graduating from Colgate in 1963, I spent two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Nepal, then a yearof graduate study in South Asian affairs at the University of Pennsylvania, and another year in Nepal on a student Fulbright grant. On returning from Nepal in 1967, I joined the State Department and was assigned -- you guessed it -- to Sri Lanka, where I was a junior officer trainee until 1970. I learned the language, Sinhala, at that time and, courtesy of Senator Jesse Helms (who, as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, held up final confirmation of 35 of us), was able to spend another seven months in 1995 resurrecting that language ability. I use the language a lot, with Buddhist monks and village people in particular. English is widely used in government and the commercial sector of the economy. Between 1970 and December 1995 I served in India, Bahrain and Nepal in positions of increasingseniority, and for the past 13 years I was in Washington in a series of jobs. These included three deputy assistant secretary positions aswell as coordinator for counter-terrorism. The last position carried with it ambassadorial rank, though I was based in Washington. "
16. When he was posted in the US Embassy in New Delhi from 1973 to 75, the Indian communists and anti-US magazines like the "Blitz"used to accuse him of being a CIA officer working under a diplomatic cover. While it is difficult to prove this, it needs to be noted that hehad served as the Counter-Terrorism Co-ordinator in the US State Department in Washington DC in 1991-92. Past holders of this post had aCIA or FBI background,
17. It is intriguing that the Obama Administration should have taken an old cold warrior such as Burleigh out of the circuit of retireddiplomats and sent him to New Delhi to hold the fort in the US Embassy during the pre-poll interregnum. Has he been sent to monitor andassess the chances of the Third Front and the likely impact on India's policy towards the US should the Third Front which has thecommunists as partners come to power? A valid question, but difficult to answer. The Congress (I) and the BJP are known quantities to theState Department and the US wouldn't be unduly concerned if either of them comes to power at the head of a coalition. But the Third Frontwith its Communists is an unknown kettle of fish.
18. Panetta's visit to New Delhi during which he had publicised meetings with P.Chidambram, the Home Minister, in addition to meetingswith M.K.Narayanan, the National Security Adviser,K.C.Verma,and Rajeev Mathur, has been criticised by the Communist Party of India(Marxist).In a statement, the party’s Polit Bureau said this was the first time that the CIA chief was accorded a meeting with the Union HomeMinister. Apart from meeting his intelligence counterparts in India, Panetta was received at the political level, signalling the new status ofthe CIA in India. It added: “The CIA is notorious for its interventions in the political affairs of various countries including destabilisinggovernments considered inimical to U.S. interests.The development is a pointer to how things have changed under the Manmohan SinghGovernment. India is fast becoming like Pakistan where the CIA and the FBI chiefs meet with the Interior Minister and Prime Minister. The role being played by the U.S. security and military agencies in the country and the manner in which the Congress-led Government ispromoting such ties should be a matter of serious concern for all those who wish to protect national sovereignty and the integrity of thecountry’s democratic system."
19.The Indian intelligence has been having a liaison relationship with the CIA since the days of Jawaharlal Nehru. This was handled by theIB till September,1968, and thereafter by the R&AW. Many CIA chiefs had visited India in the past. Their visits used to be graded as topsecret. Their programme in New Delhi used to be restricted to professional discussions with the heads of the IB and the R&AW and acourtesy call on the Prime Minister.
20. This was for security and political reasons. Before international terrorism became a majour source of concern, the securty reasonsmainly related to possible threats to the physical security of the visiting CIA chief from the intelligence agencies of the communistcountries. After the collapse of the USSR and other communist regimes in East Europe and after the normalisation of the US relations withChina, this concern is no longer there. But, since the late 1980s, terrorism has become a major source of concern. CIA officials responsiblefor the security of their Director and their officials posted in India for liaison purposes used to prefer that the visits be kept secret. Indianagencies too preferred secrecy because they were rightly concerned that if the visits were open, jihadi terrorist threats to India and to USnationals and interests in India, including to the US diplomatic and consular missions in India, might increase.
21. This position started changing when Atal Behari Vajpayee was the Prime Minister. The visit of George Tenet, the then Director of theCIA, to India was kept a secret, but the visits of the No.2 to Tenet subsequenly were publicised. L.K.Advani, the then Home Minister, cameto be associated with the visits of CIA officials to New Delhi. Their programmes included a courtesy call on the Home Minister. Not only that,Advani too, during his visit to the US in 2002, reportedly called on Tenet in his office. This caused some eyebrow-raising because while it isnormal for a visiting bureaucrat --- as a CIA Director is---to call on important political leaders of the host country, it is unusual for a seniorpolitical leader ranking No.2 in the Government to call on a bureaucrat of the host country. Pakistani leaders, in their eagerness to cultivatethe US, do it often, but Indian leaders had not done it in the past. There was some unhappiness in sections of the Indian intelligencecommunity that this could downgrade the importance and status of Indian intelligence chiefs in the eyes of their US counterparts. If US intelligence officials have easy access to our senior Ministers, why should they bother about our intelligence chiefs?
22. Panetta's visit to Pakistan is evidently related to the messy political situation there and to the on-going review by the ObamaAdministration of its strategy to counter Al Qaeda and the Taliban. There is a general acceptance among the advisers of Obama that nostrategy can succeed without the co-operation of Pakistan and that, at the same time, exercising too much pressure on Pakistan can provecounter-productive and add to the political instability. The search for a credible policy of carrots (enhanced military and economic aid) andsticks (continuing Predator strikes and threats of more if the Pakistan Army does not act) is still continuing. The CIA plays an important rolein this search. The Predator strikes----over 30 since last September and 6 of them since Obama assumed office---- are handled by the CIA.Obama has not yet taken a policy decision on the recommendation by his advisers to extend the Predator strikes to attack the hide-outs ofthe Neo Taliban of Afghanistan in Balochistan. There has been strong opposition to this extension not only from Pakistani political andmilitary leaders, but also from some US analysts and Congressmen, who fear this could turn messy and add to the political instability inPakistan. If Obama ultimately decides to extend the strikes to Balochistan, the CIA will have to co-ordinate them. One of the purposes ofPanetta's visit will be to make an on-the-spot assessment of the implications before a final decision is taken. (22-3-09)
(The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For TopicalStudies, Chennai. E-mail: email@example.com )