Retired spy hired to run CIA clandestine service

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The CIA brought one of its most experienced spies out of retirement to run the nation’s far-flung intelligence network, the agency said Wednesday.

John D. Bennett witnessed the emergence of al-Qaida in Africa in the 1990s and was on the front lines of the war on terrorism as the station chief in Pakistan. From his seat in Islamabad, he oversaw the unmanned Predator drone program, which has become the agency’s most successful weapon against terrorism.

“John has impeccable credentials at the very core of intelligence operations — espionage, covert action, and liaison,” CIA Director Leon Panetta said. “He has been at the forefront of the fight against al-Qaida and its violent allies.”

Until his retirement in May, Bennett, 58, was the agency’s most senior station chief, having served four tours in that position, including in Pretoria, South Africa. In taking this new post, he leapfrogged several other senior CIA officials who had been angling for the coveted job.

Bennett joined the agency in 1981 after graduating from Harvard and serving in the Marine Corps. He became known as one of its premier Africa experts. In the 1990s, al-Qaida began gravitating toward African nations. The terrorist organization launched some of its most high-profile attacks there, including the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies.

Because of his experience, the agency called Bennett back to headquarters after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. He later ran the agency’s Special Activities Division, an outfit responsible for paramilitary operations.

In Pakistan, the CIA scored a number of successes on Bennett’s watch. The agency’s drones killed a number of high-level targets, including Baitullah Mehsud, a longtime leader of the Pakistani Taliban. Also, the CIA, working with the FBI, uncovered a plot in August 2009 to bomb the New York subway system.

Bennett replaces Michael J. Sulick as head of the National Clandestine Service. Sulick is the second top CIA official to retire in recent months. Former CIA deputy director Stephen Kappes stepped down in May. Both men were at the helm when a double agent blew himself up last year in Khost, Afghanistan, killing seven CIA employees and injuring another six.

“I have been very fortunate to have Mike Sulick … he has guided complex operations under some of the most difficult circumstances imaginable,” Panetta said.