Oceans Champion Tapped to Lead CIA

When President-elect Barack Obama nominated Jane Lubchenco as NOAA administrator, the oceans community cheered. Yesterday, when he asked Leon Panetta to direct the Central Intelligence Agency, the response was more guarded – and not because the oceans community is particularly entrenched in The Company. Maybe we should be.

Leon Panetta (Courtesy Wikipedia)

Leon Panetta (Courtesy Wikipedia)

Panetta chaired the Pew Ocean Commission, whose comprehensive 2003 report on ocean governance remains an indispensible policy Bible. He continued to grind away on ocean issues as the co-chair, with Bush-41 Energy Secretary Admiral James Watkins, of the Joint Ocean Commissions Initiative. Blue-ribbon panels are a major slice of the Washington, DC, economy, yet commission chairmen who remain advocates of thick-report recommendations are few and far between. So, when the Panetta-CIA announcement came, the oceans community suddenly lost an influential advocate to a new, all-consuming full-time job.

The population of high-profile oceans champions is dwindling. Politics and scandals have removed Rep. Wayne Gilchrest (R-MD), who lost his primary against a conservative Republican; Rep. Tom Allen (D-ME) who lost a Senate bid; and Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK), lost a Senate race that was close even though he ran under a seven-count indictment. Panetta’s enormous job of managing the CIA will leave no time or focus to work on ocean issues.

Panetta is indeed, a big loss, considering the extraordinary effort he gave to ocean issues. I nonetheless find myself very pleased about this appointment. The CIA is in desperate need of an outsider with a deft hand and a keen intellect to change its course. Panetta has proved himself a bi-partisan organizer of difficult constituencies by handling the many different voices on the Iraq Study Group. He managed a feisty – feistier? — mix of economic, social, and political interests with the Pew Ocean Commission and JOCI.

How might Panetta’s oceans advocacy inform his tenure as director of Central Intelligence? He has a vivid understanding of democracy. The U.S. is an open society, and the American public is owner and trustee of its government. Panetta has engaged the public to apply these ideals to our stewardship of the oceans. He helped create the California State University Monterey Bay at Fort Ord Army base and the Panetta Institute, a nonpartisan public policy center. Panetta is an advocate of the “Public Trust Doctrine”: the idea that American resources belong to all citizens. These resources are only held in trust by our government — with a solemn responsibility to protect and grow them.

The Public Trust Doctrine is a powerful and unifying concept for ocean conservation. What specifically does the public trust have to do with the CIA – by definition the very opposite of an “open society”? From my work on “Natural Security,” I have observed that the most successful and adaptable organisms distribute power and surveillance to many semi-autonomous problem solvers – in fact, complexity scientists call them “agents.” In nature, these problem-solvers might be as diverse as cells in the immune system, chromatophores in octopuses, or specialized individuals in a colony of tunicates. In a democratic society, these problem solvers can be the citizens themselves. Senator Gary Hart–who was thinking and working on terrorism issues long before 9/11 — has been adamant about a similar point: The more information we provide people, the safer we are. The outgoing administration has spent the last eight years pursuing the opposite track – and not only in national security policy.

I don’t know how much and in what capacity Leon Panetta can “open up” the CIA. I do believe that his devotion to serving the public trust and his long history with ocean conservation, will lead him–probably more than any previous CIA director—to ideas about security that better reflect the way nature has been doing it for 3.5 billion years.

Just in case, I’m sending him a copy of “Natural Securityto help him along.

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