Seldom in my memory has there been such intense controversy about the CIA. Seldom has so much of what is said been so distorted and misinformed. Seldom has there been so little concern about the potential impact on the agency's ability to perform its mission and the consequences that holds for national security.
The time has come to turn down the temperature of the debate, to take a deep breath, and to get some balance and thoughtfulness into the discussion.
Let's start by dispelling the myth that the CIA has become a "dysfunctional" and "rogue" agency.
Like any organization of human beings, the CIA is far from perfect and has made mistakes -- mistakes we have recognized and are working to remedy. But dismissing the agency as "dysfunctional" is way out of line. This is an organization that, during the six months of seemingly deadlocked debate over "intelligence reform," has worked with its intelligence-community and foreign partners to take down about a dozen important terrorists who were plotting against our country and its allies. Despite waves of harsh criticism, the agency has never once lost its focus or its drive to protect the U.S. homeland and American interests abroad.
This is the same agency that, through its operators and analysts, was in large part responsible for many of the victories against terrorists and weapons proliferators cited during the recent election campaign -- the penetration and destruction of the illicit A.Q. Khan nuclear supply network, the closely related surrender of Libya's weapons of mass destruction, the capture of many of the key perpetrators of Sept. 11 attacks, to mention just a few.
It is the same agency that worked with its partners in the intelligence community to piece together analysis that drew attention to Iran's nuclear ambitions and North Korea's illicit uranium enrichment program.
"Risk-averse" is another charge now casually hurled at the agency by pundits and commentators. Risk-averse? Tell it to the CIA officers who flew into hostile Afghanistan ahead of U.S. troops just 16 days after Sept. 11 and linked up with Afghan contacts developed years before. Tell it to the scores of CIA operations officers and analysts located with American troops throughout Iraq. Tell it to the CIA officers living side by side with foreign partners in remote and dangerous areas elsewhere, determined to deny sanctuary to terrorists. Or tell it to the analysts who daily put their reputations on the line by making difficult judgment calls with incomplete information on some of the most highly charged issues of our time.
Americans need to start thinking of these officers as our troops without uniforms, for that is what they are.
So let there be no doubt: The CIA is a risk taking enterprise -- the risks are both physical and intellectual. But those who claim the CIA is risk-averse should make clear whether they are prepared to give the benefit of the doubt when something goes wrong -- always possible in any truly risky endeavor -- rather than immediately charging "intelligence failure" or "rogue agency."
Put another way, is there real tolerance for things that go awry in carefully planned operations that must be carried out in circumstances not completely under anyone's control? There should be, because there is often as much "fog" in clandestine intelligence work as there is in wars.
Beyond all this, it is alleged that the CIA was leaking material before the election to damage the president. There were leaks to be sure, but the truth is that no one, other than those who leaked and those who reported, knows where they were actually coming from.
What I do know beyond a doubt is that the CIA was not institutionally plotting against the president, as some allege. The accusation is absurd. CIA officers are career professionals who work for the president. They see this as a solemn duty, regardless of which party holds the White House. Has everyone ruled out the possibility that the intelligence community during this period was simply doing its job -- calling things as it saw them -- and that people with a wide array of motives found it advantageous to put out this material when the CIA's views seemed at odds with the administration's?
Unlike the CIA's critics, I point no fingers. I only regret that we are in a period when intelligence is being used as a weapon -- but more against ourselves than our enemies. We should all agree that this must stop.
Many people have called for a return to civility in Washington. To me, civility means thoughtful and well-informed debate. Nowhere is this more needed than in the debate over intelligence. Like the U.S. military, our nation's intelligence officers face daunting challenges now and for years to come. Constructive criticism can help. Tirades and hyperbole will not.
The writer is deputy director of central intelligence.