Following the surprise resignation of Central Intelligence Agency director Porter Goss, the immediate nomination of Air Force General Michael Hayden as successor is no surprise.
President Bush, beleaguered as public support evaporates, has strong incentive to cut off uncertainty and demonstrate authority. A number of Republicans as well as the usual Democratic suspects are critical of the selection, hard testimony to presidential weakness in an election year.
Hayden is a very successful top-level Washington player with extensive experience in intelligence, where he has spent most of his career, including heading the ultra-secret National Security Agency. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in a particularly combative press conference, stressed the nominee’s career-pro credentials. This also means critics can use his nomination to reiterate complaints about the domestic spying activities of the Bush administration.
The more general complaint that a military officer should not be heading a “civilian” intelligence agency is without merit, ignorant of both history and recent realities. The Central Intelligence Group was established in 1946, succeeded by the Central Intelligence Agency the following year. The first four directors were all senior military officers: Rear Admiral Sidney W. Souers, General Hoyt S. Vandenberg, Vice Admiral Roscoe H. Hillenkoetter, and General Walter Bedell Smith.
Bedell Smith, a very successful CIA head, had been chief of staff to Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower during World War II. As such, he played a crucial role in managing the most demanding and difficult military alliance in history. In retrospect, Ike and his team were remarkably effective in steering the United States through very turbulent Cold War years. Experience in the disciplined milieu of the military translated directly into success in the shadowy world of the spy.
In more recent decades, the United States has paid a price for the distance between civilian and military agencies. During the Vietnam War, there was general lack of communication between military intelligence and the CIA, even though the latter proved to be notably accurate in evaluating what was actually happening. Late in the war, Congress acted to force greater cooperation.
More important is the criticism that bureaucratic reshuffling too often is used as a substitute for truly effective reform. That certainly applies in the current environment. The appointment of John Negroponte as overall intelligence “czar” was advertised as bringing about greater integration of intelligence services. What has occurred in fact is expansion in total staff numbers, with an effective reduction in the true authority of CIA director.
Two remedies can help address this problem. First, Congressional leaders can use their oversight authority for truly educational probing hearings. During the Vietnam War, Sen. J. William Fulbright used such a platform to spur serious discussion of strategy _ and the information on which that strategy was based.
Second, and most important, the president must ensure that information is received from a variety sources, including those in conflict. In national security matters especially, the buck stops in the Oval Office.
Elected representatives preoccupied only with electoral survival, and a President who listens only to what he wants to hear, are prominent today. History provides instructive superior examples.
(Arthur I. Cyr is a professor of political economy and world business at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wis., and author of “After the Cold War” (Palgrave/Macmillan and NYU Press). E-mail acyr(at)carthage.edu.)