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Commentary

Politics and the CIA


     
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It has now become apparent why Porter Goss, a politician, was named to head the CIA in an administration that already has been accused of politicizing intelligence during the Iraq war: to settle old scores. Many intelligence personnel have leaked embarrassing—and accurate—information to the media about the Bush administration’s missteps in Iraq. Now it’s payback time from the White House.

According to a Newsday article that quotes a former senior CIA official who has close contacts at both the White House and the CIA, Goss is purging the intelligence officials who Bush suspects are disloyal or leaking information. To conduct this purge, Goss has recruited politicos from his congressional staff to fill high positions at the CIA. The politicos are in open conflict with senior career officials, especially those in the CIA’s secret operations directorate, which conducts overseas spying and covert missions. The strife within the agency is the worst it’s been in many years.

Although the CIA’s record on intelligence estimates may point to deep underlying institutional problems at the agency, some heads need to roll at the CIA for recent failures. Lopping them off could cause intra-institutional friction. But those heads work in the part of the CIA that analyzes the incoming information from spies and technical means of intelligence collection, not in the operations directorate. After all, those analysts tolerated, and sometimes actively aided, the administration’s effort to distort and exaggerate intelligence on Iraq’s alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction to justify an unneeded invasion. But of course, they are not the people being ousted. In fact, their career prospects most likely have been enhanced by their willingness to “play ball” with the administration.

Playing politics with intelligence is bad for the republic. No matter what an administration’s political agenda, it helps to have a “reality check” from more objective sources about what is actually happening in the real world. Purging some people in the agency is designed to strike fear into the hearts of all the rest. Conducting intelligence purges to get the answers the administration wants could lead to policy disasters that could make the current one in Iraq look mild. For example, what if agents, case officers, and analysts assigned to cover North Korea decide that their jobs are at risk unless they come up with exaggerated threat assessments to support a hawkish Bush administration policy toward that nuclear-armed power?

Further undermining U.S. intelligence collection efforts is Goss’s desire to reduce reliance on connections with foreign intelligence agencies to obtain information and to instead strengthen U.S. collection efforts. The United States, however, gains valuable and cost-effective information from such liaisons. In fact, in certain areas of the world—most notably the Middle East—the United States has had difficulty developing an effective collection system. Although beefing up U.S. capabilities is desirable, recruiting agents and case officers takes a long time. Reducing cooperation with foreign intelligence agencies would create a vacuum of information for some time to come.

Goss could better spend his time addressing the central problem at the agency. The biggest reason that U.S. human intelligence collection doesn’t pass muster is that they have been chronically undermined by a politically driven misallocation of resources. During the Cold War, the agency invested heavily in technical means of collection—including multibillion-dollar spy satellite programs—that were useful in keeping tabs on Soviet conventional forces. After the Cold War ended and terrorism became the dominant threat, these systems became less effective than human agents for detecting what was going on in small, secretive terrorist cells. Yet lobbying by large defense industrial firms has kept excessive funds flowing into these technical collection systems. Although in recent years more effort has been made to repair U.S. human intelligence—allowed to disintegrate during the Cold War—more funds still need to be shifted away from the technical side.

In short, Goss is politicizing the agency, alienating the organization, apparently purging the wrong people, unwisely reducing contacts with foreign intelligence agencies, and thus being distracted from the need for a massive reallocation of resources to more effectively fight terrorism. He is off to a rocky start as CIA director.


Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He has been Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, and he spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. He is author of the books Partitioning for Peace: An Exit Strategy for Iraq, and Recarving Rushmore.


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