Back to CIA's Bad Old Days

Editorial

Los Angeles Times

September 17, 2004

Ever since the CIA's bungled coups and assassination plots were exposed by Congress in the early 1970s, critics have seized on each fresh intelligence failure to demand radical reform. But only two Central Intelligence Agency directors — James R. Schlesinger from 1973 to 1975 and Stansfield Turner from 1977 to 1981 — really tried to shake up the agency by trimming its ranks and improving analysis. Without continuity, their attempts withered.

The most recent director, George J. Tenet, said reform would be his priority when he took office in 1997, only to declare this year that the agency needs five (more) years to turn itself around. Keep that in mind as Rep. Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.), President Bush's nominee to succeed Tenet, tells the Senate that he would practice "tough love" as CIA director. Goss is suffering from a bad case of confirmation conversion.

Goss, a former CIA operative himself, was seduced by the agency as head of the House Intelligence Committee. Goss didn't challen ge CIA analysts' assessments of Iraq and has killed off, as far as possible, investigations of the CIA's performance, including its role in the Abu Ghraib scandal. Only now does Goss issue dire warnings about agency shortcomings. Goss' own reform plan for the CIA, introduced earlier this year, called for little change other than strengthening the power of the CIA director — a job that Goss was already angling for. He apparently plans to bring with him much of the congressional staff that helped him fail to keep watch over the CIA. Goss might wish he could rebuild the agency. He might even believe it. But there's no evidence that he can, especially with the same old cast of characters.

The only change that Goss endorsed before the Senate was to give clandestine agents "more leash." This is less reform than a reversion to the agency's worst habits. Nor is Goss persuasive in his claim that the CIA requires at least five years to be rebuilt. What the CIA needs isn't that complicated. Start with agen ts with better foreign language skills, not longer leashes. And encourage competition in analyzing raw intelligence.

However erratic the CIA's performance has been, it's too easy to blame it for everything that's gone wrong. It wasn't Tenet's fault that Bush — who spent all of August at his Texas ranch in 2001 — met with him only twice that month. As intelligence expert Thomas Powers notes in the latest New York Review of Books, "warnings are useless, if a president will not listen." And no matter how much money is poured into covert operations, the CIA doesn't get to decide whether to attack another country.

The Senate and the Sept. 11 commission can draw up all kinds of plans for a new national intelligence chief, but it won't make much difference if the CIA isn't encouraged to be an honest broker of information.

With an election coming, Congress is rubber-stamping the Goss nomination. But if there's a second one, for the uber-intelligence job, lawmakers owe the nation more backbone.