The CIA’s shame

Not since the days when governments of gentlemen thought it inappropriate to read other gentlemen’s mail have America’s intelligence capabilities been more in doubt. Talk about giving aid and comfort to the enemy.

In his 18 months as CIA director, former-CIA-official-turned-congressman-turned-CIA-official Porter Goss managed to drive out some of the agency’s most valuable veterans, lose ground to the Pentagon’s intelligence apparatus, and generally leave the once-proud “company” in disarray. In addition, he appears to have gotten caught up in a series of marginally important issues such as minor leaks to the press.

But it isn’t all Goss’ fault. In fact, a large share of the blame rests with Congress for panic legislation, from establishment of the ill-conceived Department of Homeland Security to the creation of an intelligence overlord whose authority is not well-defined.

Most of all, however, the lack of meaningful and demanding congressional oversight of the $40 billion intelligence system, including a failure to curtail the increasing encroachment of the military into areas traditionally the responsibility of civilian agencies, is a major cause of the dilemma that threatens the No. 1 safeguard against terrorism _ advance information. The chipping away of CIA authority by an aggressive Pentagon has left the CIA demoralized and often impotent in its efforts to refocus from the old Cold War enemies to those in the Middle East, where much of the threat to America now rests.

Now a new round of debilitating political bickering _ over the nominee to replace Goss, Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden _ is assured by a number of hot issues. These include the administration’s program of warrantless wiretaps and the CIA’s network of secret prisons overseas, all against the backdrop of the upcoming elections. None of this, of course, will benefit the nation’s ability to overcome its intelligence-gathering deficiencies.

There was hope that a newly created post _ that of director of national intelligence _ would bring together all the disparate parts of the apparatus. But the first person to hold that job, former Ambassador John Negroponte, seems not to have made much headway. A recent assessment of his performance has been well below that anticipated when he was named. Actually, the Pentagon appears to have gone its own way without much other than a polite nod to the director and his mission as it set up its own teams that both duplicate and supersede the CIA’s responsibilities in a number of areas. The military justifies its activities by arguing that the modern battlefield now demands that commanders receive more timely information than the civilian agency provides.

Meanwhile, on the domestic front, the FBI still is struggling to change its own focus from bank robberies and garden-variety crime to counterintelligence. The need for coordination and sharing of information so well-defined by one investigative panel after another in the post-9/11 era clearly has not been met to any great degree, leaving observers to wonder if it ever will under the current structure of the bureau and the CIA.

In the midst of all this is the National Security Agency. Its title is normally preceded by “super secret,” but of late the unit has had as much public exposure as the FBI, CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency largely because of its controversial eavesdropping on overseas calls to and from the United States without benefit of judicial oversight despite a law to the contrary. All this publicity has turned the NSA into the new American boogeyman, an Orwellian monster.

What a mess.

Clearly, unless something is done to rejuvenate it, the CIA never will be the intelligence powerhouse it once was. The mere act of downgrading its director’s authority and his access to the Oval Office _ the daily briefing is now given by the DNI _ has diminished its stature tremendously, perhaps not in the public’s eye, but certainly in official circles here and abroad. More importantly, its covert-operations section is a shambles.

So perhaps it is time to create an entirely new overall intelligence agency under one authority from parts of the CIA and the FBI _ a British MI5 approach, if you will. It has long been debated and will continue to be that this is the only way of overcoming the current institutional failings of both agencies. It also may be necessary for Congress to start exerting pressure on the White House to rein in the Pentagon. This is not a military government.

Meanwhile, America’s enemies must be taking some pleasure in watching the disintegration of our leading defense against world terrorism _ accurate and timely intelligence. It scares the hell out of most of us.

(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)