Americans across the political spectrum have attacked George W. Bush’s administration for creating a double standard with respect to sensitive information getting leaked to the press. In February, former Congressman Porter Goss, the Director of the CIA, published an Op-Ed in the New York Times warning of the threat such leaks pose to national security. “Those who choose to bypass the law and go straight to the press are not noble, honorable, or patriotic,” he wrote. “…Instead they are committing a criminal act that potentially places American lives at risk.” In his defense, Goss had yet to take over the CIA when the President and Vice President Cheney allegedly authorized Cheney’s chief of staff I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby to leak a the claim that Iraq had tried to acquire nuclear weapons. Indeed, Goss was ostensibly appointed to help Bush rid the agency of “soft leakers and liberal Democrats,” according to remarks of a former CIA official widely quoted at the time of Goss’s nomination.
Yet while the leaks are being plugged, their original impetus remains—the Bush White House’s rejection of CIA’s analysts’ conclusions about Saddam’s weapons capabilities. From the moment planning for the Iraq War began, the CIA’s standing within the Administration has been declining. As the CIA has stumbled, the Department of Defense—with the tacit backing of the President—has rapidly made inroads into areas of intelligence that have historically been CIA territory. This, combined with the new provisions of the 2004 Intelligence Reform Act, has caused a fundamental restructuring of the intelligence landscape, whose outcome remains to be seen.
The CIA has always been a troubled agency, but its most recent difficulty began with the failure of the Administration to find any of the alleged weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Faced with this dilemma, the Administration found itself scrambling for a fall guy, according to John Prados, a senior analyst at the National Security Archive who has written extensively on the CIA. The Agency proved the easiest target. “The train went off the tracks when Bush’s political damage control [experts] didn’t get him out of his problems, and they chose the CIA as a scapegoat,” Prados explained, “the WMD report was the manifestation of the scapegoat: it faulted the intelligence itself, rather than the policies.” So in the summer of 2004, after allowing Director George Tenet to resign and then awarding him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Administration released chief weapons inspector David Kay’s report on Iraq’s WMD capabilities. The report, which lambasted the intelligence community at large and the CIA in particular (thus saving the Administration from having its justifications for war subjected to further scrutiny) wound up colliding with the physical devastation that American forces had begun suffering in the incipient stages of the Iraqi insurgency. Into the resulting vacuum stepped the Pentagon.
However, the Pentagon had been poised to strike for awhile. In 2002, under the aegis of a series of presidential directives, the Pentagon began secretly expanding its own intelligence program to collect tactical information for military commanders on the ground in Afghanistan. Known as the Strategic Support Branch, or SSB, the program was designed to end, in the words of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, the Pentagon’s “near-total dependence” on the CIA for human intelligence. It was later expanded, of course, into Iraq.
With 80 percent of the national intelligence budget under its control, the Department of Defense has always “dominated” the intelligence community, according to Richard Betts, Professor of War and Peace Studies at Columbia and an expert on national security. But the SSB program, which has steadily grown since the rise of the insurgency in Iraq, represents an alarming development, counters Amy Zegart, a professor at UCLA who specializes in intelligence issues.
“Everyone should be worried about having the Pentagon doing human intelligence,” she argues. “These are the guys trying to kill people. From the Pentagon’s perspective, intelligence is a weapon; they want to get as much as they can. But from a national interest standpoint it’s a very bad development; there’s no oversight.” The CIA is still the only organization that can handle the more sensitive, “finesse” jobs that involve recruiting sources and studying the culture. Her fear, she explains, is that faced with the “800 pound gorilla” of the Pentagon’s new prominence, the Bush administration has lost sight of “who’s best at what.”
Meanwhile, the CIA continues to marginalize itself. Right after Goss was hired in 2005, the agency’s two most senior officials quit, and the agency continues to “hemorrhage” personnel. More recently, the No. 3 official at the CIA was investigated for his connections to ex-Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham, who was recently convicted on bribery and corruption charges. Public perception of the agency has also deteriorated, especially with the publication of New York Times reporter James Risen’s book State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration, which chronicles the CIA’s various failures in the run-up to the Iraq war.
Perhaps the most substantial blow to the CIA came with last year’s revelation of its “extraordinary renditions” program. This involved plucking known terrorists from friendly countries and plunking them down in states willing to use torture during interrogations. While it has become clear that many of the European countries from which the terrorists were whisked away had at a minimum been aware of what was going on, the embarrassment that the revelation has caused on both sides of the Atlantic has deepened the hole the CIA had already dug for itself.
In any event, the Administration has turned to the Pentagon to oversee its critical intelligence operations abroad. As several news outlets have reported, part of the allure of the Pentagon’s SSB program is that their operations are “off the books,” immune from the Congressional oversight that the CIA must undergo. It is this shift toward less restricted operations that is draining the CIA of its powers and prestige. As the Vice President put it recently in the middle of the domestic wiretapping controversy, Bush “needs to have his constitutional powers, unimpaired, if you will, in terms of the conduct of national security policy.” The CIA cannot compete with the Pentagon’s ability to do whatever it wants without anyone watching. Iran, it has been reported, seems to have emerged as a prime staging ground for such “unimpaired” Pentagon missions.
However, for some experts, including Betts, the CIA has yet to completely cripple itself. While it has indeed fallen from grace, Betts says, it is the Intelligence Reform Act that is really throwing everything—not just the CIA— up in the air. Signed into law in the fall of 2004, the bill is ostensibly the manifestation of the recommendations made by the 9/11 commission. While interagency sharing of terrorist threat information has been improved, the results of the bill, many experts agree, remain to be seen. In particular, the creation of a Director of National Intelligence, charged with overseeing all national intelligence efforts, has added yet another variable. The intelligence community is used to keeping the identities of its agents under wraps; now, it seems, it is searching for its own.