Repairing America's Spy Shop
Listening to members of Congress, you might think the biggest problem at the Central Intelligence Agency is that one of its officers destroyed videotapes that showed waterboarding of suspected al-Qaeda operatives. I wish the problems out at Langley were that simple and that easy to fix.
The CIA today is in more serious trouble. It's caught in a reorganization of intelligence that has brought more confusion than clarity, added more bureaucracy than efficiency and increased the bloat of the intelligence community.
Fixing the intelligence problem should be at the top of the agenda for the next president. It's too late for the Bush administration to do much except make things worse. The public's deep mistrust of President Bush has spread to the CIA. I'm not sure why that's so; the CIA warned about the dangers of invading Iraq, even if it got the intelligence on weapons of mass destruction wrong. But the CIA has become a public whipping boy, attacked these days with almost equal ferocity by the right and the left. That would be good sport if we didn't need an effective intelligence service.
Top CIA officials see the agency today caught between two sets of tectonic plates. One set has the labels "Republican" and "Democrat." The right bashes the agency for mishandling the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran; the left is indignant about waterboarding and other human rights issues. Meanwhile, a second set of tectonic plates is grinding away -- these two labeled "Article 1" and "Article 2." The agency is caught between its traditional role as the executive arm of the president and new congressional demands for an oversight role that amounts to co-management.
The reorganization that created the Office of the Director of National Intelligence was a mistake, forced on a reluctant Bush administration by a Congress determined to show it was doing something to fix the problems that led to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But the "reform" has actually made some of those problems worse. It embodied the classic Washington response of throwing in more money and a new organization chart. What we have created is more confusion.
Foreign intelligence services aren't sure anymore who's running the show. Should they maintain liaison with the director of national intelligence, Mike McConnell, and his ever-expanding staff? Or should they keep their traditional links with the CIA director, Gen. Michael Hayden? Many foreign services don't know, so they do a little of both, though they still tend to see the CIA as the address that counts.
Hayden and his deputy, Stephen Kappes, have tried to shake up the CIA and move it into the 21st century. Today, CIA officers don't need to hunker down in stations inside embassies; they can operate with an encrypted laptop, a BlackBerry and a thumb drive -- if they're willing to risk losing the safety net of official embassy cover. But many veterans are wary of such changes. And top agency officials worry that they'll get support for innovating -- until the moment there's a flap and everyone demands to know why the CIA took such crazy risks.
The general mistrust of intelligence is spilling over into the agency's contacts with U.S. corporations. Companies that used to cooperate in providing nonofficial corporate cover for officers or in highly classified programs to combat, say, nuclear proliferation are getting nervous that they'll be exposed to legal consequences if there's a scandal. That's the real importance of granting immunity to telecommunications companies that cooperated in the Bush administration's terrorist surveillance programs. They did so in good faith, assured by government officials that their actions were legal -- and now they face a barrage of lawsuits.
Corporate CEOs considering whether to help the government today tell intelligence officials that they would like to be patriotic, but they can't expose shareholders to the risk of litigation. That's a worry Congress should help remove.
When the next president thinks about fixing the CIA, he or she ought to consider the radical thought that it's time to blow up the CIA and start over. That's not to denigrate the thousands of professionals who work there; but they deserve a chance to do their jobs without having those three scarlet letters attached permanently to their work. It's too late, unfortunately, to undo the reorganization that created the DNI. So let those three initials cloak a new, elite corps of analysts drawn from the CIA cadre; let's give the science and technology division to the DNI, too. The tech revolution hasn't prospered in the past decade under CIA management.
Meanwhile, let's float the clandestine service free from its barnacle-encrusted CIA anchor and let it find a new home -- somewhere distant from Langley, where the old ghosts and myths are far away.