C.I.A.-White House Tensions Are Being Made Public to Rare Degree

By DOUGLAS JEHL

New York Times

October 3, 2004

WASHINGTON, Oct. 1 - James L. Pavitt spent 31 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, the last five as head of the clandestine service, before retiring in August. But never, Mr. Pavitt said Friday, does he recall anything like "the viciousness and vindictiveness" now playing out in a battle between the White House and the C.I.A.

The tensions have simmered for years, mostly over intelligence about Iraq, including whether Iraq posed a threat. But in the last few weeks, they have surged into the open in a remarkable way, in a struggle in which both sides believe they have much at stake.

Already, the contents of classified intelligence estimates about Iraq have been leaked by people sympathetic to the C.I.A., to the considerable embarrassment of the White House. In response, the White House associated the documents' authors with "pessimists and naysayers," and President Bush initially dismissed one particularly damaging forecast as nothing more than a guess. And in newspaper columns in recent days, Republican partisans have variously described what is now afoot as part of an insurgency or vendetta being waged by the C.I.A. against the White House.

"Wars bring things out in people that sometimes other disputes don't," said R. James Woolsey, a former director of central intelligence. "But even with the passions of war, I think you ought to keep it within channels." A third former intelligence official was more critical of the C.I.A. "The agency's role is to tell the administration what it thinks, not to criticize its policies," the official said.

Of course, the most urgent threat to the agency lies in the effort now under way in Congress to restructure American intelligence agencies under the command of a new national intelligence director. Those efforts were recommended by the Sept. 11 commission, but the agency's now infamous prewar misjudgments on Iraq and its illicit weapons were an important factor in prompting the calls for change.

In defense, the agency's allies have clearly been trying, as they see it, to set the record straight, by calling attention to what they regard as the more prescient judgments by the C.I.A. that the Bush administration dismissed. In an election year that is very much about the war in Iraq, the overlapping streams of self-preservation and politics have elevated the intelligence agencies to unusual prominence.

"My opponent looked at the same intelligence I looked at," President Bush said several times in his debate with Senator John Kerry on Thursday night, alluding to the C.I.A.'s prewar blunder in asserting that Iraq possessed illicit weapons. But Mr. Kerry replied that it was the White House, not the C.I.A., that sent the country to war in Iraq.

In a telephone conversation on Friday, Mr. Pavitt made an argument that echoed that others have sounded in recent weeks. "There was nothing in the intelligence that was a casus belli," Mr. Pavitt said. The C.I.A. may have been wrong about Iraq and its weapons, he acknowledged, but it was on the mark in issuing prewar warnings about the obstacles that an American occupying force would face in postwar Iraq.

Mr. Pavitt's career whose spanned the Church Committee revelations, in the mid-1970s, of C.I.A. improprieties, the sharp downsizing of the C.I.A. under President Jimmy Carter, the Iran-Contra scandal, and the repeated intelligence failures of recent years, including those related to the Sept. 11 attacks.

As deputy director of operations, Mr. Pavitt headed human spying operations, and was the day-to-day tactical commander of the clandestine war on terrorism. He worked closely with the White House, and said he has no sympathy with those in the government who may have leaked the contents of classified documents to make a political point. "The agency is not out to undermine this president," Mr. Pavitt said.

At the C.I.A. and the White House, officials dismissed the idea that the institutions were at odds. An intelligence official said the notion of an institutional battle between the White House and the C.I.A. was "simply not the case."

Sean McCormack, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said that the White House believed "that the men and women of our intelligence community and the C.I.A. are doing a terrific job in helping to defend the country, and are working tirelessly day and night."

But Mr. Pavitt was not alone among former intelligence officials in describing what is now unfolding as extraordinary. In interviews, several other former high-ranking officials, including those from the C.I.A. and other intelligence agencies, said that while C.I.A. and White House were continuing to work closely and professionally together, they had rarely seen tensions so high among their allies and other partisans on both sides.

As for what may lie ahead, the shape and fate of any intelligence overhaul still remains far from certain. The terms of possible legislation are still being debated by the House and Senate, and it is unclear whether new legislation will be passed before Election Day. But all of the changes under consideration threaten to strip the C.I.A. from the position of preeminence among American intelligence agencies that it has enjoyed for more than 50 years.

"I think this has much more to do with intelligence reform than with Iraq," said the former senior C.I.A. official. "People are just very angry and worried and on the defensive about what they think might happen to the agency." (Like most others interviewed for this story, the former official would not allow his name to be used, saying that to do so would jeopardize his professional and business relationships.)

Whatever the motivation, the steps taken by people sympathetic to the C.I.A. allies to call attention to intelligence successes on Iraq have been notable. They included the disclosure in mid-September by government officials to The New York Times of details of a classified National Intelligence Estimate prepared for President Bush in July 2004 and distributed in late August. Its gloomy assessment of the challenges facing Iraq said that an environment of tenuous stability was the best-case outcome the country could expect through the end of 2005.

Other disclosures by government officials early this week have included specific new details contained in two other classified documents, prewar assessments on Iraq that were issued by the National Intelligence Council in January 2003. As described by the government officials, the postwar challenges identified in the documents included a surge in anti-Americanism in the Muslim world and the possibility of an anti-American insurgency in Iraq. The intelligence warnings appeared to have been much sharper than was acknowledged in the more upbeat forecasts provided before the war by Mr. Bush and top deputies including Paul D. Wolfowitz, the deputy defense secretary.

From some conservative voices, including the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal, the response has been furious. An editorial published by the Journal on Wednesday under the heading of "The C.I.A.'s Insurgency" said that Mr. Bush "now has two insurgencies to defeat: the one that the C.I.A. is struggling to help put down in Iraq, and the other inside Langley against the Bush administration."

"Rather than keep this dispute in-house," it said, "the dissenters have taken their objections to the public, albeit usually through calculated and anonymous leaks that are always spun to make the agency look good and the Bush administration look bad."

An op-ed article published on Friday in the Washington Times by John B. Roberts II, a conservative commentator on national security affairs, reiterated that message. "When the president cannot trust his own C.IA.," it warned, "the nation faces dire consequences."

Mr. Pavitt, the recently retired C.I.A. official, said such a suggestion was offensive. "This President has been served extremely well by intelligence," he said.