CIA Can’t Find Its Way?

The CIA, the powerhouse of American Cold War espionage, is struggling to find its role in the war on terror as post-Sept. 11 reforms take hold across a sprawling U.S. intelligence community.

Two months after John Negroponte took up his new position as President Bush’s overall intelligence chief, a duty previously held by the CIA director, experts say the agency’s status as the central clearinghouse for intelligence on key issues, including counterterrorism, is eroding.

“There’s a sense that the CIA is deeply embattled,” said U.S. appellate judge Richard Posner, author of the book, “Preventing Surprise Attacks: Intelligence Reform in the Wake of 9/11.”

Efforts to reform the 15-agency espionage community after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and the errors over Iraq’s weapons capabilities, have undercut the CIA’s status on several fronts, experts say.

The creation of a new National Counterterrorism Center for analysis and operational planning threatens to usurp the CIA’s role as the main center for intelligence on international militant groups including Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda.

Since Negroponte assumed responsibility for Bush’s daily intelligence briefing, the agency that once determined the reports’ contents is now one contributor alongside others such as State Department and Pentagon intelligence agencies, experts said.

These developments have prompted speculation that the CIA could lose its entire analytical function to Negroponte and become wholly devoted to intelligence collection, former officials say.

“There’s an awful lot of angst,” said former CIA officer Melissa Boyle Mahle. “They’re not very sure how they’re going to fit into the new intelligence community, and they’re not sure they’re in a position of power to shape the vision.”

CIA spokeswoman Jennifer Millerwise denied the agency was losing importance, saying the number of analysts and spies were slated to rise by 50 percent under a classified expansion plan.

“This is an agency that’s growing, that is improving, that is getting stronger, that is a field-focused organization getting more people out all over the world,” she said, adding that the CIA’s unrivaled human intelligence capabilities were vital to the war on terrorism.

Lee Hamilton, former vice chairman of the Sept. 11 commission, agreed. “The CIA is still the premier spy agency, and I don’t think its role has been diminished. My own view is that it has become more focused,” he said.

The Central Intelligence Agency, created in 1947 at the outbreak of the Cold War, was seen for generations as a powerful and secretive puppeteer of the late-20th-century struggle between East and West.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, however, it has been stung by a series of official reports on its role in major intelligence failures and recently has run into new competition from growing intelligence activities at the FBI and the Pentagon.

But the agency has also had backing from its traditional ally in Congress, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

The panel tried to preserve the CIA mission on intelligence collection by including language in its 2006 authorization bill that would place all human intelligence collection overseas under the CIA director’s supervision. The House of Representatives is expected to vote on the bill this week.

“We just want to provide clarification. If you don’t have a single point of control, there’s just too big an opportunity for confusion,” said the committee’s Republican chairman, Rep. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan.

Experts including a congressional official who has received regular briefings on reform say Negroponte has decided the CIA should retain its prominence in human intelligence gathering.

But analysts say staff anxiety spawned by uncertainty could prove a challenge for CIA Director Porter Goss, who has come under fire within the agency from those who say he has not fought hard enough to preserve its status.

“If you’re on the inside, believe the CIA is a high-functioning organization and want to preserve those functions, then you think this guy’s either sold you out or he’s just been ineffective,” said David Rothkopf of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Reforms have forced Goss to surrender his place at National Security Council meetings to Negroponte.

Negroponte has also asked CIA station chiefs around the globe to report to him instead of Goss on matters involving activities by other agencies in the community.

An intelligence official, who asked not to be identified because of the issue’s sensitivity, said Negroponte’s order underscores the CIA’s role as the dominant intelligence agency overseas.

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