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New CIA Spy Chief Represents Shift in Agency Priorities

Last week, the CIA announced the nomination of John Bennett, a former station chief and Marine Corps officer, to head the National Clandestine Service (NCS).  As the CIA’s station chief in Islamabad, Pakistan, he oversaw drone strikes that killed at least 20 high-level Al Qaeda leaders, including Baitullah Mehsud, and he previously led the CIA’s Special Activities Division, the CIA’s paramilitary wing.

Bennett’s appointment reflects the CIA’s evolving mission under the Obama administration.  While President Bush began the program of hunting Taliban and Al Qaeda operatives in the tribal areas of northwestern Pakistan with drone missile strikes, President Obama has intensified the effort considerably.  Between the program’s inception in 2004 and 2008, the New America Foundation counted just 45 drone strikes in Pakistan.  This year, the count is at 46 strikes so far.

There are two main job types at the NCS, the semi-independent directorate at the CIA that runs all CIA covert operations worldwide: espionage and unconventional warfare.  The fact that  Bennett is the former director of the CIA’s Special Activities Division and a former Marine officer shows that the unconventional warfare mission is currently the number one priority for the CIA because of its successes in fighting the war on terror.

In fact, his appointment is just the latest instance of military and paramilitary activity taking precedence at the CIA.  Just last year, then-commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan Stanley McChrystal allegedly overrode State Department Attache Richard Holbrooke’s objections and successfully lobbied for a candidate with a long paramilitary resume for Kabul station chief, a man whose resume reads a lot like Bennett’s.  From CNN.com, “a career paramilitary officer, the station chief came to the CIA after several years in an elite Marine unit…The CIA official is well known in CIA lore as the man who saved Hamid Karzai’s life when the CIA led the effort to oust the Taliban from power in October 2001.”

Even though “Holbrooke had a problem with [the agency’s choice], and he told the Agency he wasn’t going to work with [the CIA officer],” the station chief got the job.  That’s a pretty strong objection, especially coming from a career diplomat, but ultimately, paramilitary experience and a strong working relationship with military commanders won out.

Once again, with Mr. Bennett’s appointment, the CIA is demonstrating that its priority is prosecuting the war on terror as warriors rather than observers.

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