Here’s an example of the kind of accountability the CIA needs in order to get out of the doldrums and become a truly effective intelligence service:
It is 1985, and the CIA team assigned to stop the TWA 847 hijacking has returned home after an embarrassing failure. Despite a standing order from President Ronald Reagan to assault the aircraft and free the hostages, the order is never executed. A US Navy diver, Robert Stethem, is murdered, and the terrorists get away.
The CIA operatives are summoned to a remote building. They think they are going to be fired. An unmarked car arrives carrying a top government official and his senior aide. The two officials send away everyone but the seven field operatives – the highest ranking among them is a GS-13 – and demand to know what went wrong. The CIA officers are told to describe what’s broken in the system, and to name names.
The man asking the questions about TWA 847 is the vice president, George H.W. Bush. He spends three hours with these junior officers, probing for the mistakes that contributed to poor performance. When he is finished, he takes prompt steps to hold people accountable and fix problems: A two-star Air Force general is reprimanded; the CIA is given new authorities that allow it to conduct anti-terrorism operations more effectively.
“The issues we faced in that event were identified and fixed, immediately, and as word spread throughout the system, we got an amazing amount of cooperation, recalls a former CIA officer who was involved in counterterrorism operations at the time.
Now, contrast this tight accountability with how intelligence has been managed during the administration of President George W. Bush. Vice President Dick Cheney’s role has been to push for the answers he wants, rather than to ask questions. CIA officers who tried to warn in 2003 and 2004 about dangers ahead in Iraq were punished or ignored. George Tenet, the CIA director who unwisely embraced the administration’s obsession with Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, was awarded the Medal of Freedom. Tenet, to his credit, had angered the White House earlier when he refused to be the fall guy on false claims about the Iraqi nuclear program.
Wary of an independent CIA, the administration installed a Republican congressman as Tenet’s successor. He arrived at Langley with a team of congressional aides who began a purge of CIA officers suspected of disloyalty. Competence was not their concern: They installed as the agency’s No. 3 official a glad-hander who made his name taking care of congressional delegations traveling overseas. That official was indicted earlier this year for allegedly misusing his position to steer contracts to a friend.
The White House has done better on intelligence during the past year, thanks in part to chief of staff Josh Bolten, whose father was a career CIA officer. The administration appointed a strong CIA management team in General Michael Hayden and his deputy, a highly regarded career spy named Stephen Kappes. The CIA team is matched by independent-minded officials at the Pentagon: Robert Gates, a former CIA director, as secretary of defense, and James R. Clapper, a retired Air Force lieutenant general, as undersecretary for intelligence.
Clear lines of accountability are still obstructed by the bureaucratic layering of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. That bad idea originated with Congress, in its rush to seem responsive to 9/11. Bush should have listened to the many professional intelligence officers who advised against the reorganization. The new DNI, Mike McConnell, has issued a “100-day plan and other management decrees, but it’s still not clear whether this structure hurts performance more than it helps.
Hayden understands the importance of accountability. That’s why he decided to release the 1973 accounting of CIA misdeeds known as the “Family Jewels. How tame some of that material looks in light of current activities. Back then, the agency agonized over the mere discussion of assassination; today, the nation has an airborne assassination weapon on standing call, in the armed “Predator drone. Back then, the possibility that the agency had experimented with drugs for use in interrogation was an unspeakable breach. Now, the vice president’s office secretly campaigns to authorize CIA techniques that are widely regarded as torture.
The CIA today is not strong or supple enough to cope with the challenge of global terrorism. That’s the conclusion of a new history of the CIA, “Legacy of Ashes, by New York Times reporter Tim Weiner. The book stresses that over the CIA’s 60-year history, its performance – for good or ill – has always been a function of what presidents wanted. A culture of accountability is needed in US intelligence, and it must begin at the White House. Syndicated columnist David Ignatius is published regularly by THE DAILY STAR.