Ground down CIA still in the pit [pre-9/11 story]

by J. Michael Waller, Insight magazine, September 7, 2001.

Why are Bill Clinton’s political appointees still running the CIA?

The question is nagging preparedness-minded supporters of President George W. Bush who are worried that the holdover intelligence community, like the rank upon rank of social-policy holdovers at the Pentagon, at best may be naïve and at worst poorly prepared to serve the country’s needs in the 21st century. These are those, say critics, who were advanced to ever higher levels during the eight years in which Clinton politicized national security.

While Donald Rumsfeld and his team are shaking up the Department of Defense (DoD) to ensure that U.S. war-fighting abilities are adapted to post-Cold War realities, almost nothing of the kind is being done in the intelligence community that keeps decisionmakers informed about international developments and threats. For some reason, Clinton holdovers continue to run the show.

CIA Director George Tenet, who in 1996 replaced John Deutch, received Bush’s nod to continue in 2001. Tenet, many intelligence experts argue, is a good intelligence professional and a decent fellow but a do-nothing leader when it comes to reform.

Others are more sharply critical, calling him indifferent to security breaches that involve high-ranking political figures. Some accuse him of cronyism, stuffing CIA management with his own Clinton-era people while the Bush White House and Congress looked askance.

Still others call him an operator who flattered his way into retention as CIA chief by currying favor with the Bush family.

“The problem is that we don’t have an intelligence capability across the board equal to the task of supporting a real U.S. strategy for remaining a great power,” says a former senior intelligence official who requested anonymity. “We need to know about facts and have them interpreted in a way that would allow us to fashion a strategy for dealing with problems down the road. Here it is a good 10 or more years after the end of the Cold War and CIA under the leadership of Deutch and Tenet did nothing to adapt to change. They just let it go.”

A former National Security Council official agrees: “Deutch and Tenet have done very little to address the new problems of the post-Cold War period. It’s been a decade since the Soviet collapse. That’s a long time to spend $30 billion a year — $300 billion — on intelligence.”

Current and former intelligence officers have described to Insight a litany of unremedied problems within the CIA during the Deutch-Tenet years, including:

  • bloated management staffs at the expense of solid analysts, linguists and officers in the field who can accurately and quickly collect and assess raw intelligence from world trouble spots;
  • deteriorated human-intelligence capability that makes it almost impossible to penetrate key targets such as terrorist organizations and cripples U.S. efforts to detect and prevent terrorist attacks such as the bombings that destroyed two U.S. Embassies in Africa and a Navy warship in Yemen;
  • a bureaucratic culture that penalizes intelligence personnel for thinking creatively;
  • politicization of the CIA by controversial Clinton appointees who had served under Tenet in the previous administration;
  • ideological blinders concerning important target areas such as China, with the prevailing view that Beijing is not a threat;
  • major flaws in quality control of intelligence coming in from the field, with an inordinate reliance on information from security services of other countries;
  • an expensive satellite-based signals-intelligence system constructed without a plan to hire the large numbers of people and secure the technology needed to process and analyze the data to make it useful;
  • no serious penalties for high-level security lapses, including Tenet’s predecessor and former boss, Deutch, who for years e-mailed highly classified documents from his office through America Online to his house;
  • a reported high-level CIA cover-up on Tenet’s watch of Deutch’s alleged wrongdoing.

Rather than shake up the CIA and the rest of the intelligence community the way Rumsfeld is trying to reshape the Pentagon, the Bush administration has chosen to leave the Clinton holdovers in place. In turn, Tenet has allowed Clinton appointees to burrow into the CIA’s permanent bureaucracy.

During the Clinton years the ambitious Tenet actively had cultivated former president George H.W. Bush, who had headed the agency for a year. Tenet was well-wired politically, having been staff director of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence under a Democratic chairman and serving on the Clinton transition team in 1992 and 1993, then the White House National Security Council and later as deputy CIA director before replacing Deutch in 1996.

Though low-key, he has shown himself to be politically savvy, building bipartisan support that he used to protect not only his agency but his friends. In 1998 he was instrumental in renaming CIA headquarters for former president Bush. According to Rep. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who introduced the legislation renaming the compound, Tenet “was in on it from the beginning,” even before the elder Bush himself was informed. Early the next year, Tenet played host to a huge gala dedication of the headquarters, now called the George Bush Center for Intelligence, complete with a special reception for the Bush family. The elder Bush pronounced, “In George Tenet we have one of the very, very best.” He called Tenet “our great director.”

Tenet continued his courtship, having the CIA cosponsor a major conference on new intelligence priorities at the George Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University, where he gave a speech titled “U.S. Intelligence and the End of the Cold War.” It didn’t call for a bottom-up review.

During the 2000 presidential campaign, Tenet made the controversial decision to send a team to brief then-governor George W. Bush in Texas. The work paid off: Prior to his inauguration, President-elect Bush announced he would keep Tenet for an unspecified period — an announcement that insiders tell Insight was recommended by George W.’s father. Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), then-Senate Intelligence Committee chairman, wasn’t pleased. But Tenet and the new president hit it off personally.

Within two months of his inauguration, Bush made a pilgrimage to CIA headquarters, which Tenet so recently had named to honor his father. “I speak for every member of the CIA family and indeed our entire intelligence community when I say how deeply appreciative we are that you have taken time so early in your administration to come visit us here at CIA,” Tenet told the president in a welcoming speech. Bush heaped praise on the agency, but gave no hint that he thought it needed a Pentagon-style reform.

Some question remains about the former president’s view of the CIA today and whether his strong support for the agency as an institution during its most troubled times in the 1970s may have obscured from him — and his presidential son — its many problems that need addressing.

To his credit, the elder Bush publicly has noted that the CIA’s mission is different now than it was during the Cold War. “Some people think, ‘What do we need intelligence for?’ My answer to that is that we have plenty of enemies,” he said, and proceeded to spell out needed changes. However, he has not been a forceful advocate of reform, nor has he questioned Tenet’s stewardship.

In the meantime there has been no shortage of careful thinking and debate about how to make the intelligence community more efficient and capable in a post-Cold War period without a single, defined, superpower enemy and with the rise of new powers, new technologies and new threats. Government efforts, including the bipartisan Commission on the Roles and Capabilities of the U.S. Intelligence Community, the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board and the Select Intelligence committees of the House and Senate, all have made careful recommendations.

Private organizations, too, have invested heavy intellectual capital in reform of the CIA. In 1996, after four years of discussions, the private Working Group on Intelligence Reform, composed of experts from the intelligence community, Congress, academe, the military and private business, issued an 80-page nonpartisan report titled The Future of U.S. Intelligence. This report challenged what it called “the governing paradigm of intelligence which has influenced the intelligence community’s development during the past half-century.”

In other words, the report called for a total redesign of the U.S. intelligence system to address the new security environment, new national strategies and policies, internal-security weaknesses and the information revolution. “The report is concerned with the present; its concepts and recommendations are meant to be applicable now,” according to its authors, Abe Shulsky and Gary Schmitt. That was five years ago, and few of the recommendations have been followed.

One of the CIA’s strongest conservative critics is Angelo Codevilla, a Boston University professor of international relations who served from 1977 to 1985 on the staff of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

In his well-regarded 1992 book Informing Statecraft, Codevilla discussed what he saw as the intelligence community’s chief problems and how they could be remedied. Among other things, he called for a complete change in the way human intelligence is collected by slashing the number of officers operating in U.S. Embassies abroad under “official cover” and employing case officers who blend in with the local population.

Codevilla tells Insight, “The solution would be to employ case officers who are not under official cover, who did not look like, smell like, but were U.S. government employees.” The solution would be to employ largely part-timers who had their own identities in various lines of business and life and who therefore had the kinds of natural access to the kinds of targets one needs. People such as arms dealers, business executives, construction-company employees, doctors, scientists, philanthropists — all sorts of people who had access to the kinds of folks from whom you need information.

“This is a conception of human intelligence that is foreign to the CIA,” Codevilla says. “The CIA is wedded to its classic model, the so-called ‘gentleman spymaster.’ This is a silly concept. It produces intelligence that is usually worthless and often far worse than worthless, such as intelligence that is controlled by the other side.” Collection of faulty human intelligence directly impacts analysis and policy decisions.

Codevilla adds that despite the newest of intelligence-gathering technologies, “old approaches are being pursued with the latest technical methods instead of applying new technology to innovative methods of collection.” He also sees plenty of room for improvement in the quality of intelligence analysis and in security and counterintelligence attitudes and practices: “Nothing has changed since my book was published nine years ago.”

A former senior intelligence figure, who asked not to be named, agrees with Codevilla’s criticisms: “What are they spending $30 billion a year on? They have huge management staffs. They fight over putting one more person in the field, and headquarters is bloated beyond recognition. Why can’t they recruit better people? The people today, they don’t have the requisite qualifications and even don’t speak the languages. In some CIA stations nobody speaks the local language. Their trick is to rely on liaison services. That is, they cut a deal with the local intelligence organization, and they basically milk them for the information.”

That leaves little or no independent means of assessing the information from the local police, secret police or intelligence service. “The purpose of intelligence is to gather the secrets. It’s not to be another State Department, but to gather the secrets that are denied us. However, that is not the ethos of the intelligence community today. They think they are people who pronounce on policies. They say they’re just doing intelligence, but they are really interpreting what they see,” says a former intelligence officer who now consults with the federal government.

Other intelligence professionals tell Insight of their concern that the intelligence community under Tenet squandered huge sums of money on expensive satellite systems without apparently providing the planning or resources to process and analyze the information being collected.

As the situation has gone from bad to worse, some in Congress have tried to conduct needed oversight, but they have been thwarted. According to one source, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence staff recently wrote a scathing report suggesting that Deutch, Tenet and some of their deputies had committed serious breaches of security and possibly of the law, but the report was blocked by a Democratic senator on the committee. “The most significant thing you can say about Tenet,” says Codevilla, “is what he’s not: namely, a person who has brought change.”

Intelligence breakdown

The U.S. Intelligence Community consists of 13 government agencies and organizations, which the CIA director, properly known as the Director of Central Intelligence, coordinates through his Community Management Staff. Those agencies include:

  • Central Intelligence Agency, an independent agency;
  • Department of Defense intelligence elements, including: Defense Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency, Army Intelligence, Navy Intelligence, Air Force Intelligence, Marine Corps Intelligence, National Imagery and Mapping Agency, National Reconnaissance Office;
  • The intelligence elements of:
    Federal Bureau of Investigation
    Department of the Treasury
    Department of Energy
    Department of State

Source: Central Intelligence Agency