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Obama’s Mishandling of the Intelligence Community

President-elect Obama’s Mishandling of the Intelligence Community

Written by Melvin A. Goodman,
The Public Record

During his campaign for the presidency, Barack Obama spoke out against the militarization and politicization of the intelligence community and indicated that an Obama administration would address the intelligence abuses of the past decade. Unfortunately, his maneuvers over the past several weeks strongly suggest that business as usual will dominate the president-elect’s intelligence policy.

Even before the election, Obama had appointed an intelligence advisory staff that was headed by former associates of George Tenet, whose failed stewardship of CIA was dominated by the cover-up of intelligence failures before 9/11; corruption in the run-up to the Iraq War; and the CIA’s programs of rendition and detainee abuse at Agency secret prisons. Tenet’s deputy, John McLaughlin, who supported these policies, was part of Obama’s advisory group.

Immediately after the election, Obama appointed one of Tenet’s protégés, John Brennan, to head his transition team at CIA. Brennan, as Tenet’s chief of staff, was part of the corruption and cover-up at CIA. Brennan was slated to become Obama’s director of CIA, but he removed his name from consideration when it became clear that he would have serious difficulty in the confirmation process because of his support for CIA’s policies. The deputy chairman of the transition team, Jamie Miscik, also a Tenet protégé, was director of CIA’s analytic directorate in the disastrous period before the Gulf War. Both Brennan and Miscik have an interest in continuing the cover-up of Agency failures begun by Tenet after 9/11 and continued by Porter Goss and Michael Hayden.
Nearly two months after the election, Obama has failed to name either a new director of national intelligence or a new CIA director. Informed sources are now pointing to the retention of retired general Michael Hayden at CIA and the naming of retired admiral Dennis Blair as intelligence tsar. Although Obama voted against the confirmation of Hayden in May 2006, the Obama team is indicating that Hayden has done an acceptable job at CIA and that Admiral Blair is a good replacement for the retired admiral, Michael McConnell, who is currently director of national intelligence. The retention of Hayden, the naming of Blair, along with the selection of retired marine general James Jones as national security adviser, indicates that Pentagon players will continue to occupy important posts in the national security process and that the de-emphasis of civilian control of the foreign policy process that the Bush administration began eight years ago will continue.

The retention of Hayden would be particularly disheartening from a campaigner who promised “change you can believe in.” Hayden entered the CIA in 2006 under a cloud, because as the director of the National Security Agency he approved the warrantless eavesdropping program that began after the 9/11 attacks. The program violated the FISA Act of 1978 and the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution that prohibits unlawful seizures and searches. At the National Press Club in January 2006, Hayden’s defense of warrantless eavesdropping revealed a stunning lack of understanding of the Fourth Amendment, as he asserted that the amendment did not stipulate the importance of “probable cause,” which of course it does. Hayden conceded that he relied on advice from White House lawyers and never considered consulting the legal staff of NSA, which recognized the illegality of the program. Obama, a constitutional lawyer, voted against Hayden’s confirmation for that reason.

Hayden initially charmed senior managers at the CIA by telling them behind closed doors soon after confirmation that “amateur hour” at the CIA was over, a thinly veiled reference to the corrupt and partisan leadership of his immediate predecessor, former congressman Porter Goss. Hayden revealed his own partisan colors a year later, however, when he began an unprecedented investigation of the Office of the Inspector General, which had been critical of the CIA’s renditions and interrogations programs. Whereas Goss targeted and fired an IG officer, Mary McCarthy, who was working on renditions issues, Hayden targeted the IG himself, John Helgerson, who had recommended the creation of “accountability boards” for intelligence officers involved in 9/11 intelligence failures, torture and abuse, and illegal renditions.

Hayden then named John Rizzo as CIA’s general counsel; Rizzo had been the CIA’s leading lawyer in pursuing legal justification for torture and abuse of terrorist suspects, and the policy of extraordinary renditions. Fortunately, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-OR, blocked the confirmation of Rizzo, who withdrew his nomination in September 2007. Nonetheless, Rizzo continues to serve as CIA’s acting general counsel. Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-MI, has tried to investigate another CIA cover-up under Hayden’s tenure—CIA involvement in the shooting down of a missionary plane in Peru in 2001, but he is receiving no support from his Democratic colleagues.

Thus far, Obama has provided no indication that he is serious about addressing the problems of militarization of the intelligence community and politicization and cover-up at the Central Intelligence Agency. As a result, when Hillary Clinton takes the reins of the State Department, she will soon find that she is up against a military establishment that is opposed to arms control and disarmament; that favors creation of a national missile defense at home and in Eastern Europe; and that supports additional and highly risky expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. When the administrations of John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon pursued arms control policies, they counted on the intelligence community to stand up to the opposition and worst case assessments of the Pentagon regarding disarmament. Obama should be seeking similar support for his own policies.

After campaigning on “change you can believe in,” Obama is indicating that “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” He has demonstrated his confidence in his own vision and in his ability to forge consensus among those whose views differ from his own. He is underestimating, however, the power of culture and vested interest. He would serve himself well to select as CIA director an outsider, perhaps a senior foreign service officer such as Richard Holbrooke or Thomas Pickering, untainted by CIA’s recent policies and not vested in covering up Agency corruption.


Melvin A. Goodman, senior fellow at the Center for International Policy, is a former intelligence analyst at the CIA (1966-1990) and the author of Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA.

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