You almost need a secret decoder ring to try to figure out what is really going on in the Central Intelligence Agency, which is both highly secretive and resistant to understanding by outsiders and yet fond of publicity and adept (at many levels) in the dark art of the leak.
A number of top CIA officials have resigned, including the “anonymous” CIA analyst and author of the book “Imperial Hubris,” which is critical of the Bush administration and the war on Iraq. He appeared on “60 Minutes.”
What is going on?
At the center of the upheaval is the new CIA director, Porter Goss, the former Republican congressman, head of the House intelligence committee and a former CIA agent himself. Is he a determined reformer on a white horse who is identifying deadwood and slashing layers of bureaucracy to improve the ability of the U.S. government to know what is going on in the world? Or has he come on like a clueless vandal, alienating and driving out those who got it right about Iraq and promoting those who got it wrong? Is he further politicizing an agency whose analysis should be utterly independent but usually teeters on the verge of spinning intelligence to please its client in the White House?
The answers aren’t yet fully apparent, but there’s little question the CIA is badly in need of some shaking up. With the end of the Cold War (a development it managed not to forecast), it became an agency adrift through the 1990s. Whether the 9/11 attacks could have been prevented or not, the CIA failed to pick up the threads of terrorist activity and recognize any kind of threat. Regarding Iraq, former CIA director George Tenet famously assured President Bush that the presence of “weapons of mass destruction” in Saddam’s Iraq was a “slam dunk.”
Most troubling, there’s also evidence that during the run-up to the Iraq war, the CIA tailored its assessments of Saddam Hussein to what the White House obviously wanted to hear. Thus the October 2002 intelligence estimate upgraded dubious evidence of WMDs into virtual certainty.
At the heart of the questions surrounding Goss is the constant tension in the CIA between pleasing the president and delivering to him the information it obtains in as accurate, disinterested and dispassionate way as possible. An internal memo from Goss embodies the tension. He reminded employees that their job is to “support the administration and its policies in our work.” In the same memo he was adamant: “We provide the intelligence as we see it — and let the facts alone speak to the policymaker.”
It’s almost impossible to do both, yet that is the CIA’s job.
Retired Lt. Gen. William Odom, who ran the National Security Agency during the Reagan administration and wrote the recent book, “Fixing Intelligence for a More Secure America,” explained one further problem. “Good operational agents are natural-born con men,” he said. “Can you imagine the Paul Newman character from ‘The Sting’ in charge of a giant bureaucracy? It’s just not a natural fit for a guy like Porter Goss.”
An intelligence agency is useful only when it really is independent of political pressure. Goss may understand that, but with a background as a partisan Republican congressman, it’s questionable whether he will ever be perceived as independent. That’s one big reason there’s such turmoil at the CIA.