How the Panetta Choice Impacts the Military

By Brandon Friedman  |  |  View story in the original context
PUBLISHED: January 07, 2009

When former White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta was announced as President-elect Obama's choice to head the CIA, it's safe to say that all but a few insiders were surprised by the pick. For a guy with little actual intelligence experience, the selection struck some as inappropriate --especially given the expected operational overhaul that's going to occur at Langley.

But in the past 24 hours, a number of well respected former CIA officials and officers have also come out to praise the decision -- including 22-year clandestine service veteran Robert Baer, who wrote on that Panetta "is exactly what the CIA needs right now."

Because I'm no intelligence professional, I'll refrain from passing judgment on what it means to have an outsider take over the reins of Central Intelligence. But as an Army officer, I can attest to the impact that this choice will have on our military. And it's a clear one:

Leon Panetta is adamantly against the use of torture. And when the nation is involved with two ongoing counterinsurgency operations, that's huge. As Chairman Jon Soltz wrote this morning on The Huffington Post:

One of the things I've learned is that foreigners don't differentiate between the CIA, FBI, Marines, Army, Navy, Air Force, or civilian. To them, there is only "America."

How the CIA operates directly impacts the reception that America receives around the world, and how willing others are to work with us or against us. For our troops fighting in the warzone, America's reputation means a lot. For them, it is crucial that the new administration undo the torture policies of the Bush administration.

When we torture or condone torture or practice rendition, it puts a giant, unnecessary target on the backs of our men and women fighting overseas -- and it makes locals far less likely to cooperate. So instead of simply fighting those who hate us regardless of our policies, we end up creating new enemies. And the cycle churns to deadly effect. Simply put, as soldiers, it makes our jobs harder.  Recently, the Air Force interrogator who led the team responsible for locating Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq wrote about this in the Washington Post:

Torture and abuse cost American lives.

I learned in Iraq that the No. 1 reason foreign fighters flocked there to fight were the abuses carried out at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. Our policy of torture was directly and swiftly recruiting fighters for al-Qaeda in Iraq. The large majority of suicide bombings in Iraq are still carried out by these foreigners. They are also involved in most of the attacks on U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq. It's no exaggeration to say that at least half of our losses and casualties in that country have come at the hands of foreigners who joined the fray because of our program of detainee abuse. The number of U.S. soldiers who have died because of our torture policy will never be definitively known, but it is fair to say that it is close to the number of lives lost on Sept. 11, 2001. How anyone can say that torture keeps Americans safe is beyond me -- unless you don't count American soldiers as Americans.

And it is exactly this cycle that Leon Panetta stands ready to break.  Panetta will soon be in a position to reclaim the moral high ground for not only the country, but also for U.S. ground forces who must walk the streets of Iraq and Afghanistan every day, speaking to locals in their homes and where they work.  And with unequivocal assurances from above that the U.S. doesn't torture, those troops can begin to rebuild the community trust that is so critical to winning hearts and minds during an insurgency. 

Obviously, the question of torture isn't the only pressing issue at the CIA. Unfortunately, a number of books have been written over the past few years detailing other elements of dysfunction at the agency.  But this particular issue is certainly one that directly affects the military. And with the Panetta selection, it appears that we're at least taking a step in the right direction.

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