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Issue Date:  September 10, 2004

Reforming the CIA


Washington is usually a sleepy place in August, especially in a presidential election year. But right now a fascinating scenario is unfolding: an actual political fight over principles (highly unusual) and over political turf (not unusual) between Republicans and Democrats but also among Republicans themselves on different sides of the issue of the reform of U.S. intelligence.

Plans for reform stem from major failures in intelligence analysis that include the inability to detect the preparations for the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the misrepresentation of the intelligence the Bush administration used to take the nation to war in Iraq in 2003.

The intelligence failures of the CIA implicated George Tenet, the recently resigned chief of the Central Intelligence Agency. Tenet had a second job: that of director of central intelligence (DCI). He sealed his professional fate when it was discovered that on the question of whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, he had said: “It’s a slam dunk, Mr. President.”

After Tenet resigned this spring, the White House nominated Rep. Porter J. Goss, R-Fla., to replace Tenet as head of the CIA and as DCI. Goss is a former CIA agent and headed the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. Until recently, his nomination to both intelligence positions looked like a good bet. Goss had already indicated a political bias when he criticized Kerry’s previous votes on intelligence matters in a speech on the House floor. It’s an open question as to whether John Kerry, if elected president, will allow Goss or serve or whether he’ll replace Goss. The more important questions are, after reform legislation is passed, will there still be a dual position of director of the CIA and director of central intelligence? If the positions are separated, will Goss be the head of the CIA or will he direct overall U.S. intelligence? And, most significant, will there be a CIA at all?

The action picked up this summer with three publications on structural reform that were scathing in their criticisms of the performance of the intelligence community. These were the House-Senate Joint Inquiry Report on 9/11, authored by both the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, of which Goss was formerly the chairman, the 9/11 Commission Report, and, on Aug. 22, the announcement of recommendations by Republican Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, a member of the Senate Select Committee.

To the White House, which had been hoping to chip away at the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission to get a sort of superficial reform of the CIA that, in essence, would have maintained the status quo, the initiative by Roberts must have made White House officials wish they were not in Washington but in Oz.

Why would the White House opt for the status quo? No president wants to have revealed what intelligence he’s been told, enabling people to second-guess his decisions. For this reason, the White House initially invoked executive privilege and refused to allow national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, Vice President Cheney or President Bush himself to testify before the 9/11 Commission. Under enormous public pressure generated by the families of persons who died in the 9/11 crashes, Rice, Bush and Cheney all ended up giving witness, but not under oath.

It is unclear why Roberts and his fellow Republican senators chose to release their recommendations without initially coordinating them with the Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee. At a minimum, this initial lack of coordination guaranteed Democratic resistance. With a major intelligence reform bill looming in October, the Republicans may have wanted to act quickly to get their proposal on the table before the Labor Day recess. They may also have calculated that their stronger proposals for reform would give leverage to the more moderate recommendations of the 9/11 Commission.

All the reports issued found that the DCI, in the words of the House-Senate report, “was either unwilling or unable to marshal the full range of intelligence community resources necessary to combat the growing threat to the United States.” In essence, the job of running the CIA as well as coordinating all the resources of the intelligence community is too large for one person.

All the reports also recommended creation of a national intelligence czar -- or as the 9/11 Commission Report put it, a national intelligence director. The House-Senate report said this person “shall have the full range of management, budgetary and personnel responsibilities needed to make the entire U.S. intelligence community operate as a coherent whole.” This is the fight over principle going on in Washington.

If this last recommendation were to be adopted, then 80 percent of the $40 billion that is now under the control of the Pentagon would pass to the national intelligence director. Under some proposals, significant intelligence resources under the FBI and Homeland Security would also be under the control of the national intelligence director. This is the turf battle going on.

Will any reorganization give the national intelligence director the capability to control all intelligence resources and to direct these resources to accomplishing national objectives? The original White House proposal did not give a national intelligence director budget authority over all intelligence agencies. But lack of budget authority translates into lack of command authority. The above-mentioned reports cite numerous instances where DCI Tenet sent memoranda to the other intelligence agencies to make the war on terror their first priority. These memoranda were ignored.

On Aug. 28, the president signed an executive order to expand the powers of the director of central intelligence to perform many of the functions of a proposed national intelligence director until Congress comes up with legislation to codify the position. But it appears that the White House still does not want to separate the head of the CIA from the position of overall director of national intelligence.

It is no surprise that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and others in the administration are fiercely resisting these recommendations. Their turf antenna have gone to Code Red. To make their case, the administration is putting out the “good reason” that you can’t have “another level of authority” that would get in between the war fighter on the ground and the intelligence. The real reason is that they don’t want to lose control of the intelligence budget to a separate entity. Pat Roberts, a former Marine, has made it clear that his proposals do not come between intelligence and the war fighter; in fact, he says, the interaction would be enhanced.

One of the 9/11 Commission’s most controversial recommendations was that the national intelligence director be a Cabinet level position on the White House staff. The concern is that this would create the possibility of politicization of intelligence. True. But, to some degree, intelligence is always politicized. William Casey, an outstandingly poor CIA director, is a case in point. When Casey was the DCI under President Reagan, Casey set up a rogue intelligence operation under Oliver North that sold weapons to Iran to fund the contras’ insurgency against the Nicaraguan government in the 1980s. And, today, as we know, intelligence was misrepresented by the selective analysis the Bush administration used to take the nation to war in Iraq in 2003 and Tenet did little to stop it.

A perennial issue for a president is whether he has confidence in the intelligence and the recommendations being given to him. President Clinton hardly saw his directors of central intelligence; he mainly had them report through the National Security Council. There are media reports that al-Qaeda was active in the 1990s in preparation for the attack on the Twin Towers in New York City and against the Pentagon. The lack of attention to the threat in the White House in both the Clinton and Bush administrations proved to be costly.

The president must have confidence in his director of intelligence. There is no bureaucratic fix to what is a human problem. One way to guard against the politicization of intelligence, however, would be to bar any future White House claims of “executive privilege” regarding the information provided by the intelligence community. Watch and see if in future legislative proposals executive privilege is eliminated. If not, then the oversight capabilities of the Congress, and, ultimately, the public, will remain seriously deficient.

Charles N. Davis was an air intelligence officer and pilot for the Navy and subsequently spent three decades as an intelligence analyst in the Defense Intelligence Agency and on the National Intelligence Council.

National Catholic Reporter, September 10, 2004

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