The Magazine

The Agency Problem

Will the next CIA director be willing to challenge CIA careerists and continue the reforms of the dysfunctional bureaucracy?

May 15, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 33 • By THE EDITORS
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LATE FRIDAY MORNING, MAY 5, the White House called the chairmen of the House and Senate intelligence committees with urgent news: CIA director Porter Goss would announce his resignation at the White House in a few hours. The news came as a surprise. Although insiders knew that Goss was increasingly at odds with Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte, there were few indications this would lead to Goss's departure just a year and a half into his tenure.

Perhaps Goss left mostly for personal reasons: He had said the job was a draining one. Perhaps he left because he lost a turf war to Negroponte: Goss recently told close associates that he was frustrated with Negroponte's micromanaging. In particular, he objected to Negroponte's plan to move intelligence analysts from the CIA to Negroponte's bailiwick, the DNI. Goss wanted to bring CIA operatives and analysts closer together, including dispatching formerly desk-bound analysts to the field in order to provide them a better sense of the collection process. Negroponte instead planned to move significant analytical resources to the DNI, out of the CIA and further from the field, a plan that led some at the CIA to argue that Negroponte was trying to dismantle the agency out from under Goss.

We're inclined to side with Goss in this dispute. But we are concerned that Goss left, or was eased out, for reasons of greater policy significance. And if this is the case, Goss's leaving is not a good sign. Goss is a political conservative and an institutional reformer. He is pro-Bush Doctrine and pro-shaking-up-the-CIA.

John Negroponte, so far as we can tell, shares none of these sympathies. Negroponte is therefore more in tune with large swaths of the intelligence community and the State Department. If Negroponte forced Goss out and is allowed to pick Goss's successor--if Goss isn't replaced with a reformer committed to fighting and winning the war on terror, broadly and rightly understood--then Goss's departure will prove to have been a weakening moment in an administration increasingly susceptible to moments of weakness.

We hope the president will select a new CIA director who is willing--eager, even--to challenge CIA careerists, and who will continue the reforms of that dysfunctional bureaucracy that started under Goss. We hope the new director will be an independent thinker, someone who is not cowed by criticism from a vocal (and highly partisan) crew of recently retired intelligence officials, or worried by complaints from the New York Times editorial board, or influenced by sniffing from State Department bureaucrats.

In short, this person should retain a measure of independence from the man he'll report to, John Negroponte. In his brief tenure as director of national intelligence, Negroponte has shown himself awfully accommodating of the intelligence establishment. For example, when that establishment fought efforts by this magazine and others to release documents captured in postwar Iraq, Negroponte fought alongside it. When calls for openness came from the chairmen of congressional intelligence committees, he sided with the bureaucracy. Only when President Bush made clear his desire to see those documents released to the world did Negroponte acquiesce.

Negroponte fought the release for two reasons. First, he wanted to protect the intelligence community bureaucracy that had collectively dropped the ball on exploiting and utilizing the valuable information in the documents. Three years after the beginning of the Iraq war, less than 5 percent of the documents captured in postwar Iraq had been fully translated and analyzed. That is an embarrassment. It is instructive that Negroponte spent more time explaining away that reality than changing it.

Second, Negroponte argued repeatedly in internal discussions that he was concerned that the release of some documents would embarrass erstwhile allies who had been in bed with Saddam Hussein. This is not a frivolous concern. Relations with allies have a direct bearing on the cooperation we receive going forward from liaison intelligence services. But neither is it the sole concern. Negroponte gave an awful lot of weight to this argument, and almost none to the fact that there was, and is, a massive assault underway, at home and abroad, against the Bush administration's probity in going to war against Saddam Hussein--and that releasing these documents could bear importantly on this debate.

The CIA is broken. It has been for years. There is too much anti-Bush leaking and not enough creative thinking. There are too many bureaucrats and not enough risk-takers. Goss tried to reform the agency and to enlist it in the good fight on behalf of the nation's foreign policy. Will his successor?

- The Editors