They don’t call it cloak and dagger for nothing. Someday, hopefully in the not-too-distant future, a behind-the-scenes history of the Bush administration’s attempts to remake America’s intelligence community will be written. But an early draft of that history, based largely on suppositions, since secrecy shrouds not just the community’s clandestine activities but its palace intrigues, suggests confusion, stasis, perhaps even failure.
The surprise resignation/ouster of Porter Goss as head of the CIA — the man brought in to shake up the agency and rejuvenate its human intelligence capabilities — lends itself to a number of interpretations, none of them hopeful. The first is that Goss, a former agency employee who also served a lengthy stint in Congress, was a poor pick for the job and simply not up to the task. There’s no question he chafed the agency’s old guard, a fact reflected in the number of high-level departures that followed his appointment. But what’s harder to discern is whether Goss was at fault, or whether the blame for the bad blood lies with entrenched espio-crats, unwilling or unable to change.
If Goss was ousted in some sort of bureaucratic coup, or simply gave up after so short a time, sensing the mission’s futility, this suggests the agency’s internal culture may be harder to change than some imagined. The White House’s effort to lure Stephen Kappes — who resigned in 2004 after clashing with Goss — back to the agency to fill the number two position under Gen. Michael Hayden, the former head of the National Security Agency nominated to replace Goss, suggests White House backpedaling and fence-mending.
The overture to Kappes “was seen as a direct repudiation of Goss’ leadership and as an olive branch to CIA veterans disaffected by his 18-month tenure, during which many other senior officials followed Kappes out the door,” reported The Washington Post. But is the White House extending the “olive branch” because the agency didn’t really need the kind of shake-up Goss promised? Or is the White House retreating on its reform efforts in the face of internal opposition and trying to salvage its relations with CIA insiders and prevent agency morale from plummeting further?
Again, there is no way to answer such questions with certainty, for now. But neither interpretation is encouraging for those of us who recognize that without success in turning the country’s intelligence shortcomings around, the United States is a blind and bumbling giant, pawing at shadows.
Another explanation offered in news stories is that Goss wasn’t comfortable with the intelligence community’s new organizational chart, and with playing second fiddle to Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte. But it’s unclear, again, whether this is Goss’ shortcoming or the system’s.
If it’s really all about clashing egos, it’s probably best that Goss is moving on. But if the new structure has made an even greater muddle of things — as we feared when we editorialized against the creation of an additional spy bureaucracy — it’s an ominous sign.
Too much is being made, we think, of the president’s selection of a military man, Hayden, to replace Goss. Admittedly, it’s been a while since the agency was run by an active member of the military. The last to do so, Adm. Stansfield Turner, CIA director under Jimmy Carter, was a disaster who set the country on the road toward its present over-reliance on eye-in-the-sky spy gadgetry. And we understand that some might worry about a possible militarization of a spy community that should, we agree, remain securely under civilian control.
But the fear that Hayden’s nomination will make the CIA a pawn of the Pentagon is overblown, in our view — not to mention vaguely condescending toward military leaders, since it implies that people in uniform can’t think or act independently. The director of national intelligence remains a civilian, most CIA personnel are civilians (even if many have military backgrounds) and the president remains the boss, for better or worse. Plus, this general is reported to have crossed swords with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld when Hayden headed the NSA. He’s not viewed as anyone’s patsy.
Hayden’s one weakness for the job, ironically, may be his lack of experience in human intelligence work: The NSA specializes in “signals intelligence.” But that’s why the White House wants Kappes back to serve as Hayden’s No. 2.
Hayden’s confirmation hearings will give senators plenty of opportunities to explore these and other issues — including Hayden’s role in NSA’s program of warrantless surveillance of Americans. Then it’s time to get on with the life-or-death task of improving U.S. spy capabilities.