Sycophant Spies

It's sad that an administration in desperate need of unsullied intelligence would rather agents shut up and salute

By David Wise
David Wise writes frequently about intelligence and is the author of "Spy: The Inside Story of How the FBI's Robert Hanssen Betrayed America."

Los Angeles Times

November 22, 2004

AT LEAST now it's in the open. According to an astounding internal memo slipped to the press last week, Porter J. Goss, the new head of the CIA, expects his spies to "support the administration."

From time to time over the years, critics have accused the CIA of "politicizing" intelligence. The memo the CIA director sent to the agency's employees leaves no doubt. It tells the spies to get on the team, get with the program. The document left the impression that in the second Bush administration, the White House will run the CIA.

This marks the first time — as far as the public knows at least — that a CIA director, in writing, has ordered the agency's spies and analysts to back the president. Why does it matter? Because a president, in theory, relies on the CIA to present facts neutrally, honestly and objectively so that he can base his policies on accurate information. The CIA's analysts are not supposed to be cheerleaders.

Yet the Goss memo, leaked to the New York Times last week, tells the CIA's employees that their job is to "support the administration and its policies in our work," adding: "As agency employees we do not identify with, support or champion opposition to the administration or its policies."

The memo contained a disclaimer that paid lip service to the agency's core responsibility: "We provide the intelligence as we see it — and let the facts alone speak to the policymaker." But the other language about supporting the White House can hardly be misunderstood by the troops at the CIA's Langley, Va., headquarters.

Worse, the directive comes at a time when the CIA is experiencing a meltdown that has led to the retirement of John E. McLaughlin, the deputy director, and the resignations Monday of the deputy and associate directors for operations of the CIA's powerful clandestine arm. Other senior managers are said to be considering leaving.

The tension at headquarters has focused an unwelcome spotlight on an already beleaguered agency. On one front, members of Congress blasted the CIA for its notorious prewar estimate that Iraq possessed chemical and biological weapons and was developing nuclear weapons. The CIA's national intelligence estimate of October 2002 had provided support for President Bush and national security advisor Condoleezza Rice to warn of a "mushroom cloud," apparently just over the horizon unless the U.S. intervened.

The U.S. found no weapons of mass destruction, and George J. Tenet, who had presided over the agency since 1997, stepped down in July. Meanwhile, the Sept. 11 commission criticized the agency's failure to detect the plot that resulted in hijacked airliners crashing into the World Trade Center and Pentagon three years ago.

That Goss' memo was leaked to the press is not without irony, because the memo itself was designed to counter the leaks that have plagued the administration. Goss reminded employees that they were to let the public affairs office handle contacts with the media. "We remain a secret organization," he wrote.

Many Republicans, including Goss, have been persuaded that agency dissidents out to undermine the president and his reelection campaign leaked a series of classified CIA documents that found their way into print in recent months.

One leaked national intelligence estimate predicted instability — or civil war — in Iraq through 2005. Two documents leaked in September — and written in January 2003, two months before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq — were more startling. One said that war would increase sympathy for terrorists throughout the Islamic world; another, right on the mark, warned of a possible insurgency after the war.

Who knows if these leaks were politically motivated? What seems certain is that CIA officials, battered by intense criticism, would want it known that at least some of the agency's estimates about Iraq were accurate and prescient.

"Most agency people are not political," one former spy said. "They're hard-working people who try to do a conscientious job no matter what administration is in power."

Goss is not a newcomer to the CIA. A Yale graduate, Goss served as an officer in the CIA's clandestine service from 1962 to 1972, when he became ill and retired to Sanibel, Fla. From there he launched his political career and was elected to Congress in 1989. Before Bush tapped him to run the CIA, he was the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.

And that, in turn, has led to the current turmoil at Langley. When Goss moved to the CIA, he took with him four staff assistants from the intelligence committee, three of whom had previously worked for the agency. Goss named one, Michael V. Kostiw, as CIA executive director, the No. 3 spot in the agency. But Kostiw withdrew from that job when the Washington Post reported that he had resigned from the intelligence agency two decades earlier after being caught shoplifting a $2.13 package of bacon from a supermarket. (He remains a "senior advisor" to Goss.)

The others Goss brought with him were Merrell Moorhead, the deputy staff director at the House committee, Jay Jakub, who had worked as an analyst at the CIA, and Patrick Murray, the committee staff director and a former Justice Department official. Confrontations between Murray and senior officials on the clandestine side reportedly led to this week's resignations.

While Goss was chairman, the House committee issued a report last summer blasting the agency as "dysfunctional" and in need of fixing. The CIA, the panel warned, was heading "over a … cliff."

Goss arrived at Langley determined to shake up the agency and clandestine operations in particular. He has every right to do so, especially in view of the agency's recent failures related to 9/11 and Iraq. But the spies in the agency's clandestine side are a powerful bloc, and no CIA director can hope to rule unless he wins them over. Previous CIA chiefs have learned this to their sorrow.

There is precedent for a new director cleaning house. Retired Navy Adm. Stansfield Turner, President Carter's CIA chief, came in determined to clear out the deadwood at Langley. "Too many old-timers were hanging on," Turner later wrote in his book, "Secrecy and Democracy." Turner fired more than 150 spies and by attrition eliminated a total of 820 jobs in clandestine operations in 1977 in the "Halloween Massacre." The clandestine service never forgave him.

Goss may simply be trying to shape up an agency that badly needs improvement. But Goss has confirmed the worst fears of critics who warned he was too partisan when Bush appointed him in August.

His memo has become Exhibit A for those who accuse the president of trying to take tight ideological control of the government by appointing close aides and loyalists to key positions.