Serious Business for the CIA

By Eugene Robinson
Tuesday, May 9, 2006

One of my favorite George W. Bushisms was the time the leader of the free world mangled a simple aphorism: "There's an old saying . . . 'Fool me once, shame on -- shame on you. [Pause.] Fool me -- you can't get fooled again.' "

What he meant to say, of course, was "Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me ." But yesterday, as the Decider nominated Gen. Michael V. Hayden to take over what's left of the CIA, I thought of Bush's "can't get fooled again" line, which some misfiring brain cells must have borrowed (approximately) from the old song by the Who. Whether Hayden sails through confirmation or Bush is forced to come up with a Plan B, the primary mission of the CIA's new leader should be to make sure that Americans don't get fooled on Iran the way we got fooled on Iraq. I know that's a lot to ask of the CIA in its present state of disarray. I also know that in the final analysis, the White House will probably fix the intelligence to suit whatever action it decides to take. But the stakes are so high that we have to at least hope for miracles of competence and integrity.

Iran is serious business. An Iran with nuclear weapons wouldn't inevitably trigger Armageddon, but it would shorten the odds. Maybe President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has watched Bush deal with the other two members of the Axis of Evil and concluded the way to deter a U.S. invasion is to be like North Korea, which says it has the bomb, rather than like Iraq, which never did. But as best-case scenarios go, that's not very good.

The one point on which there is near-universal agreement in Washington is that there are no "good" options on Iran, and this includes doing nothing. Spy satellites can pinpoint most of Iran's nuclear facilities but probably not all, which means that a "surgical" airstrike would probably just delay the Iranian nuclear program -- and, in the process, solidify popular support for Ahmadinejad and the mullahs who rule the country. An all-out invasion would make the Iraq quagmire look like the quick, tidy "liberation" it was supposed to be.

To make the right choice among these scary alternatives requires the kind of solid, on-the-ground intelligence that only the CIA is designed to provide. How far along, really, is the Iranian nuclear program? (And please, something more specific than "slam-dunk.") How long until they can make an actual bomb? What are the differences of opinion, if any, within the leadership? What are the Iranian people thinking?

And what effect is the Bush administration rhetoric -- so reminiscent of the months leading up to the Iraq invasion -- having inside Iran? The Iranian human rights advocate and Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi told Post reporters and editors last week that all this saber rattling was not helpful. Does the CIA concur or disagree?

In the end, Bush will decide. But the CIA should at least tell him the truth, not what he wants to hear. This means that Hayden, if he is confirmed, will have to do two things. First, he will have to rebuild an agency that saw too many of its most experienced managers and spies driven out by Porter Goss, who, as director, seemed to value political loyalty over dispassionate analysis. Then he will have to be courageous enough to make the amateurs in the White House acknowledge the views of the professionals in Langley.

One obvious problem is that Hayden, who ran the super-secret National Security Agency for many years, is an expert in electronic intelligence, when satellites and other high-tech gear have already told us what they can about Iran. What's really needed now is human intelligence -- spooks -- reporting from inside Tehran. Another big negative is that Hayden ran Bush's domestic spying program, which I am convinced will be seen as one of this administration's most shameful excesses. And given Donald Rumsfeld's ongoing power grab, we should really have a civilian, not an Air Force general, in charge of the CIA.

But, hey, you were expecting a good choice from George W. Bush? If so, I've got a "Wonders of Ancient Mesopotamia" tour bus parked in Baghdad that I'd like to sell you. Very low mileage.

The writer will answer questions at 1 p.m. today onhttp://www.washingtonpost.com. His e-mail address iseugenerobinson@washpost.com.


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