From the November 29, 2004 issue: CIA Director Porter Goss takes charge.
Nov 29, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 11 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
ON FRIDAY, November 5, 2004, Patrick Murray had a blunt warning for a top career official in the CIA's clandestine service: No more leaks. Murray, who has a reputation as a no-nonsense manager, had come to the agency from Capitol Hill as a top aide to Porter Goss, the former chairman of the House Select Committee on Intelligence who took over as CIA director in late September.
For months leading up to the election, elements within the CIA had leaked information damaging to the reelection prospects of George W. Bush. Some of the leaks were authorized, some were not. Michael Scheuer, head of the CIA's bin Laden unit from 1996 to 1999 who recently quit the agency in order to be free to criticize the intelligence community, said that CIA higher-ups had given him permission to speak to the media anonymously to "bash the president." Authorized or not, the result of the steady flow of leaks was the same. Bush was portrayed as incompetent and his policies disastrous. CIA-friendly reporters, eager to keep their sources happy, stuck to the agency line.
One significant leak landed on the front page of the New York Times on September 16, 2004. Prospects for success in Iraq, the CIA assessed, ranged from bleak to grim. The story and its timing coincided nicely with the Kerry campaign's effort to paint postwar Iraq as Vietnam-in-the-desert. Then in October, less than two weeks after Goss was confirmed, "past and current agency officials" sabotaged Goss's pick to be CIA executive director, in what Bush administration figures considered a brushback pitch. Those agency officials revealed to Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus that Michael Kostiw, a respected former CIA official and immediate past staff director of the House terrorism subcommittee, had been arrested for shoplifting in 1981 and subsequently resigned from the CIA. "He is one of the brightest minds in the intelligence community," a senior Bush administration national security official told me months before Goss was nominated. Kostiw withdrew from consideration for the CIA job one day after the leak.
So it's no wonder that Goss was upset about leaks. Murray had told the associate deputy director of counterterrorism that the new agency leadership would not tolerate media leaks. This person reported the conversation to Michael Sulick, associate deputy CIA director for operations. Sulick, in turn, alerted his boss, Stephen Kappes, deputy CIA director for operations, and a meeting between Sulick, Kappes, Murray, and Goss was hastily arranged. Goss participated in most of the tense meeting. After he left, however, according to a source familiar with the confrontation, Murray reiterated the warning about leaks. Sulick took the advice as a threat and, calling Murray "a Hill puke," threw a stack of papers in his direction.
The following day, Goss summoned Kappes to discuss the altercation. Goss told Kappes that such behavior is unacceptable at his CIA and ordered Kappes to reassign Sulick to a post outside of the building. Goss suggested making Sulick the CIA station chief in New York City. Kappes refused to reassign Sulick and told Goss that he would resign if Sulick were removed from his post. Goss told Kappes to resign, and Kappes told Goss he intended to take the matter to the White House.
On Saturday, November 13, 2004, the escalating dispute over leaking was leaked to the Washington Post. That story and a follow-up the next day made clear that this was a narrative with good guys and bad guys.
The top advisers Goss had brought with him from the Hill, according to the Post, were "disgruntled" former CIA officials "widely known" for their "abrasive management style" and for criticizing the agency. One had left the CIA after an undistinguished intelligence career and another is known for being "highly partisan."
On the other side, though, were disinterested civil servants: an unnamed "highly respected case officer" and Kappes, "whose accomplishments include persuading Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi to renounce weapons of mass destruction this year." (Some might point out that the capture of Saddam Hussein, which preceded Gaddafi's renunciation by five days, and the Iraq war were also, well, persuasive.)
White House officials refused to discuss the conversations involving Goss and Kappes. The result was clear enough. Both Kappes and Sulick resigned on Monday morning.
On Wednesday the 17th, the New York Times ran a front-page story about an internal memo that Goss had sent agency employees. The headline and lede set the tone. "New CIA Chief Tells Workers to Back Administration Policies," were the words atop an article that began: "Porter J. Goss, the new intelligence chief, has told Central Intelligence Agency employees that their job is to 'support the administration and its policies in our work,' a copy of an internal memorandum shows."
Conventional wisdom was already firm: Goss and his cronies, embittered CIA failures all, were out to exact political revenge. John Roberts, anchoring CBS Evening News, wondered aloud, "What went wrong?" A Boston Globe editorial claimed the Goss "purge" was likely the "settling of partisan scores rather than an effort to introduce genuine accountability."
Let's entertain an alternative scenario: that after several years of painful and very public intelligence failures by the CIA, the new director and his team hope to make changes that will protect Americans; that Goss will draw on his decade as a CIA operative in Latin America, the Caribbean, and Europe and his seven years as chairman of the House Select Committee on Intelligence to ameliorate a deteriorating situation that he watched from the front row; that perhaps it is the CIA officials who leaked against Bush who have a political agenda or interests to protect.
It was possible to take in most press accounts over the last week and never encounter those possibilities. It would appear that reporters who cover the intelligence community--particularly beat reporters from the Washington Post, the New York Times, Newsday, and Knight Ridder newspapers--often simply regurgitate storylines presented to them by the most political current and former CIA officials. Democratic elected officials furrow their brows about the partisan Republicans. And so we arrive at yet another bizarre moment in the often perplexing political sociology of Washington: The political left and its friends in the establishment press are in a full embrace of the most illiberal and secretive component of the U.S. government.
A CIA spokesperson criticized the Times account of the memo, charging that Goss's words were "taken out of context." In fact, much of the rest of his statement conveyed the opposite point. "CIA is, of course, a part of the Executive Branch primarily as a capabilities component. We do not make policy, though we do inform those who make it. We avoid political involvement, especially political partisanship" (emphasis in the original).
The partisanship will continue. And so will the harsh, even personal, criticism of Goss and his team. The leaks against the new CIA leadership started even before they had begun to reform the place. But changes are coming.
"In the days and weeks ahead of us," Goss wrote, "I will announce a series of changes--some involving procedures, organization, senior personnel, and areas of focus for our action."
These changes are long overdue. And though you wouldn't know it from recent media coverage, many CIA officials support them. Goss is starting with the Directorate of Operations, the branch of the CIA responsible for clandestine collection of foreign intelligence. It's a good place to begin.
In all of the studies and commissions and debates about terrorists and rogue regimes and threats, we have learned one thing that should be the backdrop for every discussion of intelligence reform: The CIA failed to penetrate the senior-most levels of the former Iraqi regime or of al Qaeda. Former CIA director George Tenet has admitted this.
The clandestine service exists to penetrate our enemies and collect their secrets. Some armchair spooks pretend this is easy. It's not. But gaps in our knowledge are gaps in our security. Tenet told the 9/11 Commission it would take five years to revamp the clandestine services.
Stephen F. Hayes is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.