Interview With CIA Director Leon Panetta

A long row of windows runs along the seventh floor of the Central Intelligence Agency's headquarters in Langley, Va. Some belong to the office of the director of Central Intelligence (the DCI) and some to the deputy director of operations (the DDO). In the anxious days after 9/11, James Pavitt, the DDO at the time, put a large sign in his window. It read DCI and was accompanied by an arrow—pointing straight down the row of windows to the director's office.

Leon Panetta, the new DCI, laughed at this gallows humor as he stood by his office window. Panetta, 70, is an amiable man who has been in government for 40 years as a congressman, federal budget director and President Clinton's chief of staff. Very little about Washington surprises him. He is a realist, and honest enough to know where he stands in the nation's spy service: as an outsider.

The CIA is an insular place, and some DCIs appointed from the outside never fit in. But arguably the best CIA director ever—John McCone, who served under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson—was a California businessman who had never been a spy. McCone was clever and tough. Panetta is more benign, but shrewd, and he's crafting a role that suits what he called, during his first exclusive interview on the job, "the terrible balance between freedom and security."

Old CIA hands complain that they are told by their political masters to do dirty jobs—then get hung out to dry when the politicians run for cover. So Panetta has flown 28,000 miles in the past three months, telling "all hands" meetings at the agency's stations around the globe, "You gotta stay focused on your jobs and take risks. Let me worry about protecting you in Washington." On one trip to Iraq, he jokingly handed out earplugs to case officers to "block out the noise" from the political wars at home. Recently, he arranged for eight top officials of the Clandestine Service, the agency's spies, to meet with President Obama. It is very unusual for CIA case officers to enter the Oval Office. (JFK once asked to see the CIA's "James Bond," and the agency sent over a fat, alcoholic spymaster named Bill Harvey who handed his two guns to the Secret Service agent at the door.) At the session with Obama, the spooks argued that the release of documents describing the CIA's interrogation methods would put agency operatives at risk. The president listened respectfully and released the documents anyway—though last week, reversing himself, he decided not to release photos of abused detainees.

Panetta does not claim credit for Obama's turnabout on the photos, though he says he may have had some influence. His mission, he says, is "making sure this country is never surprised." But he knows even the best intel services cannot promise that. Reminded of the retired British intelligence officer who said he was wrong only twice—"about World War I and World War II"—Panetta guffawed and chimed in, "Pearl Harbor and 9/11. Other than that …?" He looked out his window at the Virginia countryside. It seemed peaceful.