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Larry C. Johnson: Whither the CIA?

Whither the CIA?

By Larry C. Johnson
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

Monday 08 May 2006

If the New York Times is correct, John Negroponte and Michael Hayden are hell bent on shifting critical analytical functions from the CIA to some other part of government (perhaps a stand-alone entity). If true, the death knell for the CIA is sounding, and an important national security capability will disappear if they are permitted to institute this madness. While right-wing crazies, convinced that the CIA is part of an elaborate plot to undermine the Bush administration, will celebrate this pyrrhic victory, sane Americans should hit the panic button.

According to the New York Times:

"In recent months, intelligence officials said on Saturday, Mr. Goss fought an effort by Mr. Negroponte to transfer analysts from the agency's Counter Terrorism Center to the new organization. Mr. Goss said in a speech last September to C.I.A. employees that "analysis is the engine that drives the C.I.A."

These changes are being justified based on false conventional wisdom - namely, that the structure and organization of the CIA was the major reason for the failure to stop the 9-11 plot. I am not arguing that everything at the CIA is hunky dory and that reforms are not required. To the contrary, I believe the CIA has become a big, lumbering, broken bureaucracy.

But, for all of the faults and flaws, the CIA is still a remarkable organization capable of amazing things. If you doubt that, simply buy Gary Berntsen's book, Jawbreaker, which recounts the lead role the CIA played in ousting the Taliban from Afghanistan and tracking Bin Laden. Fortunately, the good work by Gary and other CIA officers was not an isolated case. However, the American public will not know most of the stories.

The Bush administration, the Republican Congress, and key members of the media also have pushed the lie that it was bad intelligence analysis that led the United States into the war with Iraq. The truth of the matter is quite the opposite. While there were some CIA analysts guilty of bad analysis (e.g., one senior analyst insisted that aluminum tubes in Iraq were evidence of a revived nuclear program), analysts were right on many more issues. The analysts dismissed the Bush administration's claims that Iraq was trying to acquire uranium in West Africa and they debunked the White House and DOD insistence that Bin Laden and Saddam were in cahoots. Yet, despite clear, unambiguous analytical judgments to the contrary, President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice warned the American people of imminent mushroom clouds, implied that Iraq was tied to the 9-11 attacks, and whipped the American public into a frenzy to back the invasion of Iraq.

The sad irony to all of this is that it is the CIA, not the Bush administration, that has been punished for being right. In my opinion, CIA leaders - such as George Tenet, John McLaughlin, and DDI Jamie Miscik - bear major responsibility for this outcome, because they allowed the politicians to meddle with the analysis and did not insist that the CIA remain above the policy fray. What is so puzzling is that in the fall of October 2002, Tenet and McLaughlin both went to bat to stop the Bush administration from using the claim that Iraq was trying to get uranium in Niger. Yet, when it came to the State of the Union address, they wilted.

Of course the CIA's problems were not created only by cowardly politicians; the agency has suffered from a failure of leadership. George Tenet, in my view, bears special responsibility for helping undermine its credibility. During Ronald Reagan's presidency, the Bill Casey CIA still required analysts writing for the PDB and the NID to coordinate with their counterparts at State Department and the Department of Defense. At some point during Tenet's tenure, CIA analysts were allowed to publish without having to coordinate their analysis. That type of hubris and arrogance is inexcusable and helped make the CIA a natural target for blame when things went wrong on 9-11.

When it is doing its job right, the CIA, especially the analysts, will be a natural target of criticism by politicians. Politicians vested in a particular policy want to hear good news. They do not like being told that their "great idea" is actually a turd. That happened under the Democrat Lyndon Johnson, the Republican Richard Nixon, the Democrat Jimmy Carter, the Republican Ronald Reagan, the Democrat Bill Clinton, and the Republican George W. Bush.

Unfortunately, Bush, Cheney, and many of their partisans believe the CIA has it in for the president and are not being coy about treating the CIA as an enemy that must be contained. When professionals like Paul Pillar and Tyler Drumheller come forward with tales of politicians ignoring analysis and intelligence reports, they are attacked with the false accusation that they are Democratic partisans more interested in serving the interests of the president's political opponents than the national security of this nation. This is a damned lie and it is incumbent on the president and the press to put it to bed.

The current moves by Negroponte and Hayden, if true, to move the analytical function out of the CIA is crazy and demonstrates a woeful ignorance of the history of the intelligence community. Dewey Claridge, for all of his faults, correctly recognized in the 1980s that the threat of terrorism required a joint effort by analysts and operators. That is why he created the Counter Terrorism Center. The failure of the Center to share with other parts of the US intelligence community could have been remedied through better leadership and oversight. But, that would have been too cheap and boring for Washington politicians eager to provide a symbolic gesture to voters.

So, we now have a new layer of bureaucracy - the National Director of Intelligence - and a new organization - the National Counter Terrorism Center, and the problem of compartmentalization of information is worse than ever. Instead of having analysts working closely with operators tasked with finding Bin Laden, the analysts are being moved out of CIA Headquarters. We are moving backwards to an isolation of analysts from the CIA operators that was abolished in the 1970s. This fact alone indicts Negroponte and Hayden as misinformed and misguided stewards of the intelligence community.

If I could make two changes to the CIA, I would do the following. First, release to the public the Inspector General's report that assigned blame for who did not do their job in the leadup to 9-11. That should be publicly debated, and there should be an accounting. Just as Navy Captains at the helms of ships that run aground lose their jobs, so too should intelligence officers be held responsible for deliberate sins of omission and commission. Second, CIA should institute a system of management akin to the military's, which forces a periodic evaluation of officers. As in the military, low performers should be weeded out and released. The real problem at the CIA has been the lack of accountability and the lack of consistent, strong leadership.

The attacks on 9-11 and the foolish invasion of Iraq did not occur because we did not have enough intelligence bureaucracies in Washington. Yet, the Bush administration and the Congress - Republicans and Democrats - have given us a new layer in the intelligence community and added new agencies. I repeat, lack of bureaucracy and bureaucrats in Washington is not the cause of our current problems with intelligence, they are a symptom of the disease.


Larry C. Johnson is CEO and co-founder of BERG Associates, LLC, an international business-consulting firm that helps corporations and governments manage threats posed by terrorism and money laundering. Mr. Johnson, who worked previously with the Central Intelligence Agency and US State Department's Office of Counter Terrorism (as a Deputy Director), is a recognized expert in the fields of terrorism, aviation security, crisis and risk management. Mr. Johnson has analyzed terrorist incidents for a variety of media including the Jim Lehrer News Hour, National Public Radio, ABC's Nightline, NBC's Today Show, the New York Times, CNN, Fox News and the BBC. Mr. Johnson has authored several articles for publications including Security Management Magazine, the New York Times and The Los Angeles Times. He has lectured on terrorism and aviation security around the world.

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