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Failures of Intelligence

A dangerous shakeup at the CIA

By Sasha Post

The CIA is in turmoil. New director Porter Goss took the agency’s helm just two months ago, but he’s wasted no time shaking things up. Goss, a Republican, is the former chair of the House Intelligence Committee, and he’s brought a gaggle of his old staffers along for the ride. The new politicos move fast; they’ve already earned the animosity of the agency’s senior career officials and bagged a batch of high level resignations to boot. More heads rolled Monday, when Stephen R. Kappes, head of the clandestine service, and his chief deputy went the way of John E. McLaughlin, the agency’s deputy director, and several other top officials. Now even some Republicans seem to think things may be getting out of hand. Senator Chuck Hagel, R-Nebraska, recently worried that, “If we find ourselves without a senior group of CIA hands, that would certainly not enhance American security and might undermine our security.”

The CIA certainly needs a good shakeup. Critics including former terrorism czar Richard Clarke, hardly an administration apologist, have charged that the agency’s risk-averse culture has held back efforts to cultivate human assets in the Arab world. But it appears that Goss and his gang may be putting politics ahead of real reform. On Sunday, Newsday quoted a former senior CIA official, who charged that the Goss shakeup is really about evening old scores: “The agency is being purged on instructions from the White House. Goss was given instructions ... to get rid of those soft leakers and liberal Democrats. The CIA is looked on by the White House as a hotbed of liberals and people who have been obstructing the president’s agenda.”

From the White House perspective, evidence of this liberal conspiracy includes the leak of the CIA’s National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) last September. The report laid out a sobering assessment of the prospects for stability and democracy in Iraq that contradicted the rosy picture painted by the White House. And the administration wasn’t any happier about Imperial Hubris, the book published anonymously by Michael Scheuer, the CIA official in charge of tracking Osama bin Laden from 1996 to 1999. Scheuer’s book, green-lighted by agency higher-ups, sharply criticized the war in Iraq, arguing that it had played right into bin Laden’s hand.

Scheuer’s resignation last Thursday came as little surprise. Bush won’t stand for this sort of behavior anymore. Porter Goss is the new sheriff in town, and anyone who dares to alert the American people to the administration’s latest screw-up or prevarication gets labeled a liberal obstructionist and is shown the door.

This is cause for real concern. Although the CIA dropped the ball on the question of Iraqi WMD’s, their poor performance still put the Administration politicos to shame. Remember the embarrassing episode with that non-existent yellow-cake uranium from Niger? Despite CIA analysts’ concerns about the strength of the evidence, Thomas Rider, the former politically-appointed intelligence chief at the Department of Energy, went ahead and used it as the basis for a July 2002 report arguing that Saddam was beginning to reconstitute his nuclear weapons programs (whereupon he received a big pay bonus). I don’t believe the CIA should be exempted from political oversight, but neither am I eager to see the whole-scale politicization of our national intelligence apparatus.

Unfortunately, the CIA brouhaha is part of a clear pattern. Over the past four years, several government agencies—including the Justice Department and the Environmental Protection Agency—have begun to witness an unprecedented exodus of disgruntled long-time careerists. Administrations came and went, but these career officials had stayed on, maintaining stability, continuity and professionalism in our government agencies. But this time around something is different. By so thoroughly politicizing our institutions of governance, the Bush administration has forced too many principled officials into an untenable position: It’s either their way or the highway.

If Bush ever feels like exercising the powers of the presidency to push some genuine intelligence reforms he might want to turn his attention to the Pentagon, which controls eighty percent of the nation’s $40 billion intelligence budget. The 9/11 Commission Report recommended that Congress create a National Director of Intelligence (NDI), and empower the position with budgetary authority. Rumsfeld, however, isn’t eager to cede any power to a new NDI. Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee are currently deadlocked with their Senate counterparts on this issue. A bi-partisan Senate bill would strip Rumsfeld of some of his budgetary powers and transfer them to the new NDI, but the House Republicans aren’t buying. Bush, meanwhile, hasn’t budged. The protracted stalemate has led even Norm Orenstein, analyst at the right-wing American Enterprise Institute, to question the President’s resolve: “The question we really have now is, ‘How serious is the president?’ If he told the Republicans he wanted it done, or if he gave a talk or a press briefing and said ... ‘I don’t like this gridlock,’ it would happen. But I think there’s no strong eagerness on the part of the White House to do that.”

Sasha Post ’05 is a social studies concentrator in Adams House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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