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Bad Intelligence

George J. Tenet with President Bush at the Central Intelligence Agency in 2001
George J. Tenet with President Bush at the Central Intelligence Agency in 2001 (Larry Downing/reuters)

Barrett also keys in on the smug superiority of some directors and senior CIA officials when testifying before congressional oversight committees. I have long marveled at the inability of most oversight legislators and staffers to ask clear questions; their failure to frame pertinent follow-up questions borders on the absurd. That said, Barrett shows that CIA officers usually knew full well what they were being asked but did not provide the requested information because the question was not precise. Barrett clearly shows this is the road to bad blood between Congress and CIA. (I saw this tactic in action often in my career and always thought it self-defeating and akin to lying. When testifying, I tried to answer the question I thought was being asked. Under recent CIA leaders such as George Tenet, this was unacceptable, and only "reliable" officers wound up testifying. When I headed the CIA's al Qaeda unit in the late 1990s, for example, my masters simply kept me from talking to the House and Senate's oversight committees.)

Barrett also documents the roles of the president and others in the CIA's development. Presidents Truman and Kennedy generally backed their directors (at least until the 1961 Bay of Pigs debacle), valued the agency's analysis and were willing to help Congress keep an eye on the intelligence community. Eisenhower was the most informed and subtle user of CIA intelligence but fought Congress's efforts to expand oversight of CIA activities.

Barrett finds that the State and Defense Departments resented the CIA as the new, postwar kid on the block, but a combination of some goodwill on all sides, the CIA's growing track record and presidential insistence built acceptable bureaucratic cooperation. The one exception was the CIA's ties with the FBI, which from the start were marked by the latter's malice and suspicion. Barrett portrays J. Edgar Hoover as he was: supremely competent and endlessly malignant. Hoover had his organization try to block and defame CIA activities. Then as now, the FBI's motto was "The FBI first, always; America second, if convenient; CIA never."

Barrett's scholarly and precise book is well complemented by the human dimension that Stansfield Turner breathes into the complicated, inadequately studied ties between presidents and directors. His new Burn Before Reading is a thoughtful, entertaining and often insightful essay. Turner, the man who ran the CIA from 1977 to 1981, perfectly catches Franklin D. Roosevelt's duplicity in allowing William "Wild Bill" Donovan (the prominent Republican who ran the CIA's forerunner, the Office of Strategic Services) to believe he ran U.S. intelligence, while keeping the reins tightly in Roosevelt's own hands. Interestingly, Turner suggests that Ronald Reagan handled William J. Casey in the same way, leaving Casey to appear as the spearhead of the clandestine Cold War while the president reserved pivotal decisions for himself.

Turner, like Barrett, paints excellent portraits of the directors (and says some frank things about his own tenure). He is especially good on the abrasive, honest and loyal Walter Bedell Smith (who served from 1950-53); the patrician Allen W. Dulles (1953-61), a talented man but a bit of a dissembler and publicity hound; and R. James Woolsey (1993-95), the pariah of President Clinton's first-term national security team and the man who failed to punish those who ignored the suspicious behavior of Aldrich Ames, thereby letting that traitor destroy the CIA's network of human assets in the Soviet Union.

For me, the most enlightening section of Turner's book is his discussion of Richard M. Helms's tenure at Langley (1966-73). During my last years at the CIA, George Tenet worshipped at the Helms altar -- moving, as Turner notes, Helms's portrait from the CIA's gallery of past chiefs into his office and referring to Helms in many speeches. For agency personnel, of course, Helms is known as the "man who kept the secrets," but Turner shows that Helms not only lied to Congress but -- more damaging to the CIA as an institution -- willingly manipulated intelligence analysis on Soviet intentions and Vietnam to avoid displeasing President Nixon and National Security Adviser Henry A. Kissinger. Helms, for example, withheld a CIA report analyzing the stark downside of a U.S. invasion of Cambodia because, as Turner puts it, Kissinger's and Nixon's "minds were clearly made up. The report would have just angered them." Having read Turner's excellent assessment of Helms and having lived through the pre-Iraq War period at the CIA, I now understand Tenet's choice of Helms as a role model.

The upshot of these books is that the relationships among the president, Congress and the CIA will never be comfortable. Espionage and covert action are essential tools of foreign policy and national defense, but they do not lend themselves to near-perfect oversight. Barrett and Turner both suggest this tripartite relationship can be handled with good will, common sense, sound leadership and integrity on all sides. A major lesson from these books -- one that was clear in my CIA career -- is that the key to managing the CIA is an intelligence chief who is courageous, honest and ready to deliver bad news to the president clearly, firmly and often.

In this context, the CIA's current ill repute emanates primarily from directors' failures, in various forms. Some directors were lax on legalities, leading the way to investigations such as the Church and Pike committees, whose "reforms" helped teach CIA officers that covert action can end a career (Dulles and some of his successors); others were willing to "manage" intelligence so as not to alienate the White House or contradict policy (Helms and, apparently, Tenet); and some lacked the courage to take the disciplinary action needed to clean up after CIA disasters (preeminently Woolsey). Indeed, the two books suggest that all these blunders paved the road to Tenet's risk-averse CIA, which also refused to solve crippling problems inside the intelligence community and seemingly cooked the analytic books.

In other words, Barrett and Turner show that people -- especially senior leaders -- are responsible for intelligence failures, whether they occurred on Dec. 7, 1941 or Sept. 11, 2001. These books should go to Porter J. Goss and Bob Graham (who led the joint House-Senate inquiry into intelligence failures around 9/11), Thomas H. Kean and Lee H. Hamilton (who chaired the 9/11 Commission) and Charles S. Robb and Laurence H. Silberman (who headed the presidential inquiry into intelligence on WMD). Perhaps they would be embarrassed enough by them to redo their unsatisfactory labors, which, by failing to lop off so many eminently deserving heads, left the moral cowards in charge. Short of that, we must find a CIA skipper with Walter Bedell Smith's integrity, frankness and courage -- and try resolutely to avoid perpetuating the disastrous combination of Woolsey and Tenet.

Michael F. Scheuer was a member of the CIA's Senior Intelligence Service and the first chief of its unit on Osama bin Laden. He is the previously anonymous author of "Imperial Hubris" and "Through Our Enemies' Eyes."

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