Many of you probably caught the widely reported story of the internal shake-up at the CIA under new DCI Porter Goss. The ongoing spin as the story broke has attributed the resignations of former acting DCI and current DDCI John McLaughlin and other top career civil servants at the CIA to Bush administration retribution for politically motivated leaking.
To an extent this is not only true but eminently justifiable because senior CIA officials were leaking to influence a presidential election and immediately began attempting to sabotage their new DCI's team by selective leaks from their FBI raw files ( other candidates as leakers include the FBI itself or members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, if they have received the files. Draw your own conclusions as to means and motives). Say what you like about the Bush administration but it's a bad precedent to let the top officials of the nation's premier intelligence service get away with trying to manipulate the democratic process. These folks have to go regardless of their position on intel reform or Iraq.
The underlying conflict at the CIA isn't simply partisan politics but a ferocious debate over the nature of the agency itself. Senior CIA administration, who were among those excoriated by veteran analyst Micheal Scheuer in Imperial Hubris and veteran field agent Robert Baer in See No Evil, like the status quo of liason intel collection work where the CIA is taking what friendly intelligence services have to offer. Certainly the information is not accepted uncritically but it leaves the United States, blind, dependent and subject to foreign manipulation.
Cross-checks against our own HUMINT sources are generally unavailable because the CIA got out of the HUMINT business in "difficult" areas during the Clinton-Deutch-Tenet era. From the senior CIA official perspective, developing your own sources is politically risky while errors from say the Mossad or BND or Indian intelligence can be fobbed off when Congressmen begin asking pointed questions. Liason work, which can have value on its own merits, is much preferred for CYA reasons. Same thing for promoting " Current Intelligence" analytical production ( news) over reports garnered primarily from espionage.
Porter Goss is an advocate of the CIA doing it's own field work, taking risks, engaging in clandestine action, including paramilitary operations, strategic influence, deep cover penetration to procure strategic intelligence needed for in-depth analysis. Some agency veterans, who lived through the era of the Church and Pike Committees, Iran-Contra and a series of bad Oliver Stone movies, are recoiling in horror. Having been burned more than once by unscrupulous politicians as the winds shifted, their prime directive is to avoid any career-ending gaffe that could end up on the front pages of the New York Times.
To an extent they are right. Today's hero who nails a top level al Qaida killer with a predator missile may be tomorrow's scapegoat or criminal defendent if " the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party" regains the ascendancy. It's easy to forget how sharply the pendulum has swung since 9/11. As recently as 1999, moderate historian Douglas Brinkley* wrote of that the intelligence community's covert operations were viewed with " thorough disgust" by the American public due to spy scandals.
Nevertheless, an agency that faces Islamist terrorists can find the courage to face down snide questions from a leftist Congressional staffer fresh from his last semester's diversity workshop at Princeton. It can also find the nerve to deliver bad news to policy makers ( " intelligence consumers" in CIA lingo). In fact, it might be a good idea to delineate where intelligence analysis ends and policy making begins. A recent CIA roundtable indicates that at best, the lines are very blurry on both sides of the divide. This lack of clarity is the fault of the administration and Congress, not the CIA or it's analysts but the confusion is evident- as is the unwillingness of political appointees to accept non-linear ( probalistic, multi-tiered) estimates that are a far better reflection of reality. The report is worth the time to read.
The CIA needs reform - current intelligence production should be separated from strategic intelligence and only the results coallated in NIE or some other format; clandestine operations in all its facets must become more robust while analysis needs an infusion of resources and acceptance of alternative analytical methodologies. The political branches need to accept that to ask the CIA or the IC to make predictions or engage in covert-operations runs the risk of error or failure. When these things fail and the CIA has done what it has been asked under the limitations that the law directs, then the blame for the failure lies with Congress or the administration.
The shifting of blame to " faceless bureaucrats" for two generations has demoralized the men and women of the CIA, a service that is critical to American security. It has made them risk-averse, it has made them conventional and it has made them into lawyers out of self-preservation.
What it hasn't done is make the rest of us one iota safer.
UPDATE: Earlier, I mistakenly identified the historian Douglas Brinkley as the historian Alan Brinkley. I have corrected the error and offer my apologies to both gentlemen. Mea culpa.
" The great majority of mankind are satisfied with appearances as though they were realities" -- Machiavelli