Spies on Ice

Is the CIA out in the cold — or warming up?

On George W. Bush’s watch, the CIA has become a mess. But it is hard to tell if the current chaos at the agency is a prelude to a better intelligence service that will be capable of handling the serious challenges posed by al Qaeda and other Islamic fundamentalists — or merely a prelude to further chaos. While Congress has been arguing about legislation that would restructure the intelligence community — with House Speaker Denny Hastert doing the Pentagon’s bidding and refusing to bring the bill to a vote even though it would pass — the CIA seems to be falling apart. Since Bush installed Porter Goss, a former Republican congressman who once was a CIA case officer, as CIA director in late September, the deputy director, the director of operations, the deputy director of operations, the chief of the European division, and the chief of the South Asian division have quit. Other recent departures include senior officials in charge of personnel, recruiting, security clearances, internal management, legislative affairs, global logistics and public affairs.

Is there anyone left to chase down what’s-his-name, you know . . . Osama bin Laden?

During the W. years, the CIA committed two of the biggest screwups in its history (which is full of screwups). There was 9/11. Before that awful day, the CIA did not respond sufficiently to the threat presented by al Qaeda, and it failed to react to intelligence indicating Islamic terrorists were interested in a 9/11-like attack. It also neglected to share with the FBI in early 2000 information indicating that two suspected al Qaeda associates were in or heading to the United States. These two men went on to become 9/11 hijackers. And there also was Iraq’s WMDs (or lack thereof). CIA management inflated the intelligence regarding Iraq’s unconventional weapons, even though various analysts in the intelligence community questioned whether Iraq was an immediate WMD threat. (And Bush exaggerated the CIA’s exaggerated conclusions.)

These are mighty big blunders. Yet Bush demanded no accountability. No one lost his or her job. George Tenet, the CIA chief, was not canned. Bush displayed no public curiosity or concern about why the CIA had bumbled so. He initially opposed the creation of an independent 9/11 Commission and only relented in the face of pressure from the 9/11 families. He also resisted at first calls to establish a commission to investigate the WMD intelligence failure. Then he formed a low-profile commission, asking it to examine the difficulties in collecting WMD intelligence, not to discover what the CIA had done wrong in Iraq.

It did seem a shakeup at the CIA was necessary. Then came Goss, and a shakeup has ensued. But is it the right shakeup? Much of the turmoil at Langley appears to be prompted by the heavy-handed actions of Goss’ aides, who have been derided by CIA officials and Capitol Hill Democrats as partisan hacks out to do in an agency that they believe is loaded with analysts and officers who have schemed to undermine Bush’s policies. Both the director of operations, Stephen Kappes, and his deputy, Michael Sulick, quit after a confrontation with the Goss gang, which insisted the CIA go after CIA officers who had leaked information contradicting Bush administration assertions. (Newsweek reported that a former CIA official said that Patrick Murray, one of Goss’ top lieutenants at the CIA, used to press this official to declassify information that could be used to embarrass Democrats when Goss was chairman of the House intelligence committee and Murray was his top staffer.)

Goss did not generate confidence when he sent out a memo to CIA employees in mid-November informing them that their job was to "support the administration and its policies." Did that mean cook the books to buttress Bush’s decisions? Probably not. But the memo was regarded within the CIA as a warning to toe the line. Goss defenders noted the memo did declare, "We provide the intelligence as we see it and let the facts alone speak." But it also stated that CIA employees do not "support . . . opposition to the administration or its policies." What if the CIA were to uncover facts that undercut administration policy? Would providing such information to a member of the intelligence committee who criticized the administration be considered supporting opposition to the administration?

Goss may be cleaning out deadwood that can be easily replaced. Or he might be consolidating power and imposing his own crew (and views) upon the CIA, booting veteran officers who possess valuable experience. But such a shock to the system has to have an impact in the short run. (Imagine how much less work you’d get done if the senior managers at your company were running for the door.) Michael Scheuer, who used to head the CIA’s bin Laden desk and who under the pen name of "Anonymous" published a book critical of the CIA and the Iraq war, told the British Guardian, "I’ve never experienced this much anxiety and controversy." Scheuer, who resigned in mid-November, noted, "Suddenly political affiliation matters to some degree. The talk is that they’re out to clean out Democrats and liberals. The administration doesn’t seem to be able to come to grips with the reality that it was a stupid thing to invade Iraq."

Meanwhile, Bush has ordered an interagency group to consider expanding the Pentagon’s role in covert operations — which could come at the expense of the CIA, which traditionally has handled clandestine paramilitary missions. At the same time, Bush has told Goss to produce within 90 days a plan to increase the number of CIA covert officers and analysts by 50 percent. This may seem like a boost for the CIA’s fortunes. But the White House has said such an expansion has to occur "within existing budgets," and intelligence veterans have noted that such a plan could lead to lower standards and an emphasis on quantity over quality.

All this adds up to a CIA in crisis. Robert Baer, a former CIA officer, says the intelligence service is "dysfunctional." And the intelligence reform bill is not the solution. It does not address the problems with the CIA’s internal culture, its historic inability to penetrate hard targets (the Soviet Politburo, Castro’s regime, the Viet Cong, the Communist Party of China, al Qaeda), or the conflict between the CIA’s nose-to-the-grindstone analysts and the neoconned Bush White House, which does not enjoy submitting its messianic plans to reality-based vetting.

Does it matter if the CIA is in chaos? Folks who think of the CIA primarily as an agency of evildoing (mounting anti-democratic coups in Iran, Guatemala and Chile, working with dictators and murderous armies elsewhere, partnering up with suspected drug-runners during the Contra war, etc.) might be tempted to say a CIA in decline is fine by them. But al Qaeda and its allies are a real danger to the United States, and these foes cannot be neutralized by military might alone. Smart intelligence — as well as a smart foreign policy — is necessary. Given the CIA’s track record over the years, there is no reason to believe it can penetrate al Qaeda and get a good bead on anti-American Islamic jihadists. (It still hasn’t located bin Laden.) But it has to try. And even if the Bush White House continues to embrace a don’t-confuse-us-with-the-facts approach to national security, there remains a need for independent intelligence analysis. (Perhaps less arrogant Republicans in Congress might find the material useful). Yet so far Goss, who was a partisan player when he headed the House intelligence committee, shows no signs of reviving the CIA as an utterly independent agency devoted first and foremost to assessing and telling the truth (at least to U.S. policymakers). Under Goss, the CIA might continue its slide and become yet another casualty of the Bush administration’s recklessness.


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