Driving past the George Bush Center for Intelligence, as the CIA headquarters is officially known, you can't help wondering how on earth America's spy service has become the favorite whipping boy of the right wing.
It's crazy for a nation at war to be purging its spies. But that's what has been happening in the weeks since former representative Porter Goss (R-Fla.) and a phalanx of conservative congressional aides took over at the CIA. What makes the putsch genuinely scary is that it seems to be driven by an animus toward the CIA that could do real damage to the nation's security.
Goss's supporters argue that he's just trying to rebuild an agency that needs a shakeup. And certainly the CIA could improve its performance: It is too risk-averse, too prone to groupthink, too mired in mediocrity. But the cure for these problems is hardly to send in a team of ideologues from Capitol Hill and drive out the agency's most experienced intelligence officers. This politicization can only make the agency's underlying problems even worse. And heaven knows what foreign intelligence services, which are America's crucial partners in the war on terrorism, make of the spectacle at Langley.
But I doubt that performance issues are what's really motivating this housecleaning. The CIA, after all, did a better job of recognizing the al Qaeda threat before Sept. 11, 2001, than did the FBI, the Pentagon or the National Security Council. And while the CIA could certainly improve its operations in Iraq, the agency at least understood that the United States would face a bloody postwar insurgency there. If performance were the yardstick, surely it would be the official who bungled postwar planning for Iraq, Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith, who would be out on his ear.
The conservative CIA-bashers also complain about leaks and criticism of the administration by agency personnel. Their prime example is Michael Scheuer, former head of the Osama bin Laden unit and author, under the pen name "Anonymous," of two books critical of U.S. anti-terrorism strategy. Right-wingers speak of Scheuer as if he were some kind of closet Kerry follower, but clearly they haven't read his bloodcurdling books. "Killing in large numbers is not enough to defeat our Muslim foes," he writes in "Imperial Hubris." "With killing must come a Sherman-like razing of infrastructure." Not the usual liberal bromides, to say the least.
No, what's driving the Langley Lobotomy is a belief among conservatives that the CIA is an impediment to Bush administration foreign policy. Civilian officials at the Pentagon and neoconservatives at Washington think tanks have been badmouthing the agency relentlessly for the past four years. Their arguments are sometimes driven by special pleading -- complaints that the CIA opposed the neoconservatives' favorite Iraqi, Ahmed Chalabi, for example; or that it was too close to Sunni Arab countries such as Jordan, Egypt and Morocco; or that it was too skeptical of the administration's optimism about transforming Iraq and the Arab world.
Sometimes, as in the case of the military, the issue has been turf; more power for the agency meant less for the generals and admirals who run the National Security Agency, the National Reconnaissance Office and other intelligence-collection units. That turf consciousness, combined with the Pentagon's ferocious lobbying power, seems to have crippled or killed outright the Sept. 11 commission's proposals for intelligence reform.
If the military were facing a similar political purge, the public would rightly be indignant. But for some reason, the protected status accorded the military in recent years does not extend to their brethren at the CIA. Intelligence officers have been fair game for political attack for decades. The CIA-bashers were once on the left. Now it's the right that demonizes the CIA as an elitist "rogue agency," but the effect is the same. The agency wears a permanent "Kick Me" sign on its backside. It's the excuse for everyone's problems. Even Sen. John McCain, who should know better, has joined in the public flaying of the CIA, calling it "dysfunctional." Doesn't he see that the current assault on career intelligence officers is like the post-Vietnam attacks on an unpopular U.S. military?
What's disturbing is that all this is happening under the eye of a reelected President Bush. Does the man who campaigned as a resolute wartime leader really think it makes sense for conservative Republicans to gut the CIA and derail the intelligence reform bill? Why does he find it so hard to speak up for the politically battered officers who staff the George Bush Center for Intelligence? If there's a logic here, other than misguided partisan politics, it escapes me.