If, at first, you don’t fail…try, try again

An average citizen might reasonably assume the nation’s intelligence services are in disarray, but the White House says all is not only in good order but steadily improving.

CIA Director Porter Goss was not fired. The White House insists he was always a transitional figure and that, despite the departures of key agency personnel and charges that Goss was more interested in enforcing administration loyalty than intelligence, he left voluntarily after 19 months, if somewhat precipitously.

The nominee to replace him is Gen. Michael Hayden, who would technically be taking a step down in the depth chart since he is currently the nation’s No. 2 intelligence official as deputy to the director of national intelligence.

His current boss, John Negroponte, described him as the “best person, civilian or military,” to head the CIA. And despite some minor quibbles _ he was never a covert op _ Hayden does indeed have the credentials and experience to head the CIA.

Negroponte brushed aside the reservations of conservative Republicans about having a military officer in charge of the top civilian spy agency and the concerns of Democrats about warrantless wiretapping by the National Security Agency, launched when Hayden headed the eavesdropping unit.

But Congress should, in confirming Hayden, aggressively address those issues to its satisfaction. While Negroponte sees no “rift” between the Pentagon and civilian branches of the intelligence apparatus, many others say the Pentagon has used the bureaucratic confusion at the CIA to encroach on traditionally civilian preserves. And it may be more symbolic than significant, but Hayden plans to remain an active-duty Air Force officer.

The administration dismissed concerns that the CIA had suffered by being pushed down the table _ its director, for example, no longer reports directly to the president _ in the reorganization of the intelligence community. Comparisons to the fate of the Federal Emergency Management Agency were especially unwelcome. Negroponte insisted that the CIA would remain the premier center of human intelligence and analysis.

But in a tacit acknowledgement that Goss’ tenure fell well short of success, the administration announced that Stephen Kappes would be returning to the CIA as Hayden’s deputy. Kappes, then the agency’s deputy director of clandestine operations, resigned in protest over personnel issues two months after Goss took over.

The White House, which rarely admits to mistakes, seems to have made a bad one, and one doesn’t need to be a student of national security and governmental operations to recognize the signs of disarray.

(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)SHNS.com)