Obama White House v. CIA; Panetta Threatened to Quit
Tensions Lead to CIA Director's "Screaming Match" at the White House
By MATTHEW COLE, RICHARD ESPOSITO and BRIAN ROSS
August 24, 2009
A "profanity-laced screaming match" at the White House involving CIA Director Leon Panetta, and the expected release today of another damning internal investigation, has administration officials worrying about the direction of its newly-appoint intelligence team, current and former senior intelligence officials tell ABC News.com.
Amid reports that Panetta had threatened to quit just seven months after taking over at the spy agency, other insiders tell ABCNews.com that senior White House staff members are already discussing a possible shake-up of top national security officials.
"You can expect a larger than normal turnover in the next year," a senior adviser to Obama on intelligence matters told ABCNews.com.
Since 9/11, the CIA has had five directors or acting directors.
A White House spokesperson, Denis McDonough, said reports that Panetta had threatened to quit and that the White House was seeking a replacement were "inaccurate."
According to intelligence officials, Panetta erupted in a tirade last month during a meeting with a senior White House staff member. Panetta was reportedly upset over plans by Attorney General Eric Holder to open a criminal investigation of allegations that CIA officers broke the law in carrying out certain interrogation techniques that President Obama has termed "torture."
A CIA spokesman quoted Panetta as saying "it is absolutely untrue" that he has any plans to leave the CIA. As to the reported White House tirade, the spokesman said Panetta is known to use "salty language." CIA spokesman George Little said the report was "wrong, inaccurate, bogus and false."
Investigation by CIA Inspector General
Another source of contention for Panetta was today's public release of an investigation by the CIA inspector general on the first two years of the agency's interrogation and detention program. The report has been delayed by an internal administration debate over how much of the report should be kept secret.
One CIA official said colleagues involved in the interrogation program were preparing for a far-reaching criminal investigation.
In addition to concerns about the CIA's reputation and its legal exposure, other White House insiders say Panetta has been frustrated by what he perceives to be less of a role than he was promised in the administration's intelligence structure. Panetta has reportedly chafed at reporting through the director of National Intelligence, Dennis Blair, according to the senior adviser who said Blair is equally unhappy with Panetta.
"Leon will be leaving," predicted a former top U.S. intelligence official, citing the conflict with Blair. The former official said Panetta is also "uncomfortable" with some of the operations being carried out by the CIA that he did not know about until he took the job.
Other Candidates for the Job
The New York Times reported Thursday that the CIA had planned to use the private security contractor Blackwater to carry out assassinations of al Qaeda leaders.
Six other current and former senior intelligence officials said they too had been briefed about Panetta's frustrations in the job, including dealing with his former Democratic colleagues in the House of Representatives.
One of the officials said the White House had begun informal discussions with candidates who were runners-up to Panetta in the CIA director selection process last year.
One of the candidates reportedly has begun a series of preparatory briefings.
"It would be a shame if such as talented a Washington hand as Panetta were to leave after one year," said Richard Clarke, an ABC News consultant who worked on the national security team for the Clinton and Bush administrations and served as an adviser to President-elect Obama.
"It takes that long for any senior bureaucrat to begin to understand what needs to get done and how to do it, "said Clarke. "The CIA needs some stability."