From Islamabad Station Chief to New CIA Spymaster

A fresh indication of the extreme importance the Obama administration attaches to U.S.-Pakistani relations: the CIA's new top spymaster, John D. Bennett, was the agency's chief of station in Islamabad in his most recent foreign posting. Bennett is said to have accomplished big things there, although the assignment goes unmentioned in the brief official biography issued as part of the agency's announcement on Wednesday that Bennett is to succeed the legendary agency undercover officer Michael Sulick, who is retiring as head of the CIA's National Clandestine Service (formerly known as the Directorate of Operations). "Bennett helped guide a major improvement in relations with the Pakistanis," a U.S. official tells Declassified, asking not to be named discussing sensitive information. "On his watch, terrorists like Baitullah Mehsud vanished from the battlefield."

The Islamabad station chief's job is particularly challenging because of a deep suspicion among many U.S. officials that certain elements within Pakistan's top spy agency, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), remain close to Islamic militants. In the years before 9/11, the ISI is known to have been a principal sponsor of jihadist groups, including the Afghan Taliban. Since Obama took office, a procession of senior U.S. officials, including CIA Director Leon Panetta, has visited Islamabad to encourage the civilian government and the military's top brass to root out the extremists who use the country as a sanctuary.

Bennett's official biography says he joined the CIA in 1981 after serving as a U.S. Marine, and that he spent much of his career overseas, including four stints as agency station chief in undisclosed locations. At the agency's HQ in Langley, Va., he served as deputy chief of the Clandestine Service's Africa Division; deputy director for "Community HUMINT" (apparently meaning that he was responsible for coordinating human-intelligence efforts with other agencies such as the Defense Intelligence Agency); and head of the agency's Special Activities Division, which handles ultra-secret spy operations, including occasional commando missions. He evidently retired from the agency between his stint as Islamabad station chief and his new assignment as chief of undercover ops, but his respite didn't last long before Panetta lured him back into the fray. "This guy's the real deal, a tough, seasoned operator who understands the full range of threats, new and traditional alike," says the unnamed official, who describes Bennett as "a plain speaker with a Harvard degree."

Sulick's retirement represents the end of an era. He and Steve Kappes, who retired in April as deputy director, were purged as senior Clandestine Service officials after President George W. Bush appointed former congressman Porter Goss as CIA director. Sulick and Kappes reportedly resigned in an angry confrontation with members of Goss's praetorian guard of personal aides, known as the Gosslings, over an alleged leak that had embarrassed one of Goss's entourage. Goss himself later stepped down, beset by complaints of ineffective leadership and a scandal that sent the CIA's No. 3 official, Dusty Foggo, to jail for corruption. Goss's successor, Gen. Mike Hayden, lured Kappes and Sulick back from private industry to help stabilize an agency in crisis. The two longtime undercover spies have been widely credited with rebuilding morale at the agency and improving its relations with Congress. After Kappes retired, many at CIA headquarters expected that Sulick would soon follow him out the front gate.