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March 25th, 2009
05:15 PM ET

The spy who came in from the cold - straight to a photo op

CIA Director Leon Panetta

CIA Director Leon Panetta

Pam Benson
CNN National Security Producer

A photo op with a world leader is usually the crowning moment. Just about everyone wants the cameras rolling when they're in the company of somebody important, someone of influence . That is unless you're the head of the world's most famous spy agency. CIA directors prefer doing their business in secret.

Yet this weekend, we saw CIA Director Leon Panetta sitting across from Pakistani President Asif Ali Zandari engaging in some chit chat - while the cameras captured the moment.

Spies like to operate in the shadows. They move stealthily from one location to another. The fewer people that know what an officer is up to, the better. The CIA Director may be the public face of the Agency, but historically, his appearances have been limited to Congressional testimony, meetings with the President and possibly a few speeches each year to academic groups or think tanks. And those events occur within the borders of the United States.

When the CIA director is overseas, we usually don't even know it until after the fact, that is, if we ever know about it. And usually we don't. As CIA press officers will tell you, they are not in the business of discussing the director's trips.

Now sometimes the director will let the cat out of the bag, mentioning his travels during Congressional testimony. Occasionally the host nation will leak the director's presence, sometimes to highlight their own importance. That prompts local media to stake out suspected hotels or meeting places in hopes of getting a fleeting photo of the American spy chief. Last week, the paparazzi were outside of the Home Ministry in New Delhi to catch Panetta as he was leaving his meeting with Indian officials.

Former CIA Director George Tenet did his best to keep out of the spot light, although a few times his commander in chief put him in a position to be seen.

President Clinton gave him a key role in the Mideast peace process which resulted in photographers desperately trying to get pictures of him in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

And of course there was the infamous briefing at the United Nations when Tenet was forced to sit behind Secretary of State Colin Powell who was making the Bush Administration's case for war against Iraq. Powell's presentation was based on what turned out to be faulty intelligence information about Iraq's WMD program. It's pretty safe to say Tenet would have much rather remained in the shadows.

But it is extremely rare for a CIA director to sit for a planned media photo with a world leader. And in some cases, the host country would prefer its populace knows nothing about its dealings with American spooks.

Was Panetta a willing target for the cameras in India and Pakistan? The CIA isn't saying. As a life-long politician, Panetta is used to being in the spotlight.

But As one former intelligence official put it, photo ops are for Secretary of States and Presidents. CIA Directors need "to keep alive the useful suspicion that they are the ones who pull the strings."

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