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
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.