The CIA at Rock Bottom

By David Ignatius
Sunday, May 7, 2006

CIA employees were sitting at their computers Friday afternoon when they saw a message advising them to toggle to the agency's in-house television channel. On their screens they saw CIA Director Porter Goss abruptly announcing his resignation. In at least one office at the agency, and I suspect many more, there were quiet cheers. The Goss years have not been happy ones at the CIA.

Goss was dumped by a president who doesn't like to fire anyone. That was a sign of how badly off track things had gotten at the CIA. Goss and his aides were feuding with the agency's staff and with officials of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), the new bureaucratic canopy that overlays the CIA and 14 other intelligence agencies. One of Goss's senior aides was facing potential legal troubles in a bribery investigation; another he had brought over from Capitol Hill was scrambling to submit his resume to investment banks and other potential employers. Against this background, a White House emboldened by new chief of staff Josh Bolten decided it was time for "executive action," the euphemism the CIA once used for taking someone out.

President Bush's tepid comments in accepting Goss's resignation suggested that he had finally lost confidence in the ability of the Republican former congressman to make intelligence reforms work. "Porter's tenure at the CIA was one of transition," Bush said. He noted that Goss's effort to integrate the agency into the larger intelligence community had been a "tough job."

Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte, who favored replacing Goss, similarly spoke of "transition and reform." That's a gentle way of describing the past year of reorganization, which intelligence veterans say has been closer to chaos and disintegration. The CIA has been hit hardest by the bureaucratic shuffle, with Goss struggling to fend off poaching from Negroponte and his ever-expanding staff.

Goss is said to have clashed with Negroponte and his deputy, retired Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden. He tried to block what he saw as a DNI effort to raid more analysts from the CIA's Counterterrorist Center and steer them to the DNI's National Counterterrorism Center.

What may have hurt Goss most inside the White House was sharp criticism from a hush-hush group known as the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. This blue-ribbon group is headed by Stephen Friedman, a former chairman of Goldman Sachs and former White House economic adviser. Because its members include many prominent business executives, the board could offer a nonpartisan, CEO's view of how Goss was running the agency. I'm told some of the board's judgments on Goss and his management team were devastating.

Goss got off to a shaky start because he was seen as a man on a political mission. CIA officers regard themselves as professionals, doing a dangerous job for the country. They know they work for civilian bosses. But like military officers, they want to be treated with respect. Though Goss long ago served as a CIA case officer, he arrived from Capitol Hill with a phalanx of conservative aides, soon dubbed the "Gosslings," who viewed the agency as a liberal, leak-prone opponent of conservative causes. That image is mostly nonsense -- many of the people forced out by the Gosslings were ex-military officers who would be tempted to shoot Democrats on sight, and most veterans cheered Goss's effort to stop press leaks. Goss's attacks on senior officers were reckless, and they peeled away a generation of senior CIA managers. Sadly, the Bush White House mostly applauded his jihad on what they viewed as CIA naysayers.

An example of the political frictions that harmed the agency involved CIA reporting from Iraq. From late 2003 on, the agency was warning about the rise of the Iraqi insurgency and the failings of the administration's political strategy. In 2004 the CIA station chief in Baghdad was sending warnings every 60 days, in special messages known as "AARDWOLF" cables, about the deteriorating situation. This candid and largely correct reporting is said to have angered White House officials, who complained that the Baghdad chief was defeatist and not a team player. At the end of his tour, he was punished with a poor assignment.

Goss's exit gives the Bush administration a new chance to get intelligence right. The reorganization, now that it has begun, must be completed. Negroponte needs to stop the bureaucratic ballroom dance and build a spy service that's up to the challenges ahead. The administration needs to respect intelligence officers rather than treat them as enemies. The CIA sank to a low ebb under Goss. Perhaps that's the good news: There's nowhere to go but up.

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