WASHINGTON -- The Central Intelligence Agency has taken heavy criticism in recent years for everything from the Iraq War to torture. Now, under a new administration, the agency is looking to rebuild its reputation. But some are worried that ideology could get in the way of that mission.
Although President Obama's national security team has generally been well regarded by the right thus far, his choice to lead the CIA has caused controversy. Leon Panetta, who served as President Clinton's chief of staff, has been called too partisan by some Republicans and members of the intelligence community.
Lack of Experience
His lack of intelligence experience has also been called into question. The chief worry among the critics among is that Panetta will continue to shift the agency to the left--where, they say, it has been steadily drifting for years. They also worry that the pick of Panetta shows that President Obama, like his Democratic predecessor Bill Clinton, will have little interest in intelligence matters.
Former Clinton advisor Dick Morris wrote recently in the New York Post that Panetta "is as liberal as they come. He long ago embraced the left with the fervor of a convert and brings these values to the CIA."
Morris added that "choosing Panetta to head the agency culminates liberals' 35-year crusade to take over the agency, humble its operatives and rein in its operations."
The Left's War Against The CIA
Critics say the left's war against the CIA began in the 1970s. After Vietnam--and following the emergence of details about CIA assassination plots and domestic spying--Democrats in Congress investigated the agency closely. They proclaimed the need for openness over secrecy and dealing with unsavory characters as intelligence contacts. Conservatives say the liberal attacks on the CIA eventually gutted the agency. The immediate results of this, they say, were major intelligence failures like the agency's miscalculation of the Iranian revolution in 1979--which it failed to predict--and its shock over nuclear tests conducted by India and Pakistan in 1998.
The problems continued for years. But after 9/11, many Democrats began proclaiming the need for strong intelligence services.
Which brings us back to the choice of Panetta. Republican Congressman Peter Hoekstra, who serves on the House Committee on Intelligence, says Panetta has the right background to lead the CIA.
"He was a member of Congress," Hoekstra told CBN News. "He was the Chairman of the Budget Committee. He was the Chief of Staff to the President of the United States--meaning that he has sat in on intel briefings. What I don't know--and what we'll monitor and what we'll interact with Leon about--is, what policies and what initiatives are you going to drive?"
"I think that I may have significant policy differences with President Obama and Leon Panetta as to where there going to go with the intelligence community," Hoekstra added. "But that shouldn't disqualify the person that the president has selected to lead that agency."
One of Panetta' s most challenging jobs is to repair the CIA's image--which has taken a beating in recent years.
The Bush administration used the agency's conclusion that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction as a major reason to go to war with Iraq. American forces there still haven't found any of these weapons, although some believe they were transferred to Syria prior to the war. There have also been questions on the capabilities of U.S. intelligence in key countries like Libya--whose now-disbanded nuclear program was much more advanced than the CIA realized--and Pakistan. Plus, the CIA helped compile a 2007 National Intelligence Estimate stating that Iran had given up its nuclear program.
Panetta contradicted that report recently, saying that Iran is indeed still pursuing nuclear weapons.
"That was quite possibly the worst intelligence estimate--the part of that it was made public--that I've ever seen or know anything about," James Woolsey, who served as the agency's director from 1993 to 1995 under President Clinton, told CBN News in a recent interview. "It was extraordinarily misleading."
A Campaign to Undermine President Bush?
Hoekstra believes the Iran findings were part of a CIA campaign to undermine President George W. Bush.
"I think it has become very politicized," he said. "Almost every program that we put in place or that the Bush administration put in place to combat and conduct the War on Terror leaked and became public--and I think a lot of that stuff came out of the CIA."
Those leaks have raised questions about certain CIA tactics in the War on Terror. President Obama has already banned one of them -- secret prisons for terrorism suspects.
His position is unclear on rendition -- the transferring of terror suspects from the U.S. to another country for interrogation.
And while the President has continued the policy of conducting drone missile strikes on terror targets in the tribal regions of Pakistan, he has banned waterboarding as an interrogation tactic.
"One shouldn't go back and say 'those of you CIA officers that followed orders on waterboarding Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, now you are criminals,'" Woolsey said. "What the CIA did, it did under the direction and authority -- written authority -- of the President and the Justice Department. And I believe the interrogation procedures and so forth were briefed at least to the leadership of the Congressional Oversight Committee."
"Waterboarding is an complex issue because apparently it's absolutely terrifying," he added. "In that sense, one can reason that it is torture. But it also doesn't leave permanent damage--indeed we use it to train our special forces."
Woolsey believes mind games and psychological tactics are more effective than physical torture.
"What tends to work is deception," he said. "Someone actually taking the time to befriend the person that is being interrogated. American interrogators got a great deal of information out of Saddam Hussein after he was captured simply by speaking decently with him and sitting there talking-- he wanted to talk."
But Woolsey also feels that the CIA should be able to use techniques that some on the left have condemned if they will help save American lives.
"If somebody asked the question 'would you take the leader of the 9/11 attacks and play loud rock music until he said, 'Just stop, stop, stop I'll tell you everything'--I'm comfortable with doing that," Woolsey said.
The Agency's Greatest Challenges
Looking forward, Woolsey sees Pakistan, Iran, and North Korea as the agency's greatest challenges under the Obama administration.
"All of them in one way or another have nuclear weapons or potential availability of nuclear weapons," he said. "I think understands that Afghanistan and Pakistan--particularly that border area, home now to the Taliban and al Qaeda--is, in many ways, the most dangerous part of the world. Both in terms of the threat that can be fostered and come after us here in North America and Europe, and in terms of the potential destabilization of a nuclear power -- Pakistan.
Hoekstra says developing better human intelligence will be crucial for the CIA under Panetta's leadership.
"There is only so much information that you can gather when you grab a secret that's being talked about on a cell phone, or you're taking a picture from space," he explained. "You need a person sitting in the table or around the table in the inner circle to give you the real insight as to what is going on with these people or these groups that want to harm America."
Does the CIA Now Lean to the Left?
So does the CIA have a liberal bent? Opinions vary.
"It depends on how far left you mean," Woolsey said. "If you mean generally what most Americans would call liberal Democrats, they have been very, very numerous in the CIA for a long time -- going back to its founding."
"There are also some conservatives," he continued. "The CIA rather reflects the spectrum of opinion in the United States. I would imagine that probably something over half, not a massive majority, but something over half, probably voted for Obama over McCain."
One unresolved issue for the Obama administration is what it will do with the 245 prisoners at Guantanamo Bay once the prison closes. There are also questions about how the prisoners will be interrogated. The President has been adamant that he opposes torture -- but not everyone agrees on what crosses the line.
*Original broadcast February 24, 2009.