The ruin of the CIA

Sidney Blumenthal
16 May 2006

Political manipulation and personal rivalry that both reflects and reinforces scandalous policy failure: Sidney Blumenthal dissects the saga of the CIA in the "war on terror" years.

The moment the destruction of the Central Intelligence Agency began can be pinpointed to a time, a place and even a memo. On 6 August 2001, CIA director George Tenet presented to President Bush his presidential daily briefing, a startling document titled "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S." Bush did nothing, asked for no further briefings on the issue and returned to cutting brush at his Crawford, Texas, compound.

In Bush's denial of responsibility after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks, the search for scapegoats inevitably focused on the lapse in intelligence and therefore on the CIA, though it was the FBI whose egregious incompetence permitted the plotters to escape apprehension. Bush's intent to invade Iraq set up the battle royal that followed.

Tenet, an inveterate staff careerist held over from the Clinton administration, had ingratiated himself with the new White House tenant with salty stories, but it was in his eagerness to please Bush on Iraq that he ensured his tenure and made himself indispensable. At first, Tenet opposed inclusion in the president's speech of October 2002 of the disinformation that Saddam Hussein was seeking to build nuclear weaponry using yellowcake uranium he supposedly sought to purchase in Niger, and the reference was knocked out. Yet, having already been discredited, the falsehood was inserted into the president's State of the Union address of 28 January 2003, becoming the now infamous sixteen words.

Tenet reassured Bush that the case for Saddam's possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) was a "slam-dunk". At CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, Tenet promised then secretary of state Colin Powell that the information he would use to prove Saddam had WMD in his 6 February 2003 speech before the United Nations security council was ironclad. Powell insisted that Tenet be seated behind him while he spoke as visual reinforcement of his statement's unimpeachable character. Yet every piece of it was false, and the humiliated Powell later said he had been "deceived". Tenet resigned on 3 June 2004, and shortly thereafter was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

After the brief interim appointment of CIA professional John McLaughlin, Bush named Porter Goss the new director of central intelligence – on 10 August 2004, almost three years to the day after the Tenet presidential daily briefing on bin Laden. The president was looking for someone to rid him of the troublesome agency. In Goss, he thought he had discovered the perfect man for the bloody job, but the nature of the task undid him, and in his unravelling another scandal unfolded.

Sidney Blumenthal is a former assistant and senior adviser to President Clinton. He is the author of The Clinton Wars (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003) and writes a column for Salon and the Guardian.

In the absence of any reliable evidence, CIA analysts had refused to put their stamp of approval on the administration's reasons for the Iraq war. Vice-president Dick Cheney and his chief-of-staff, I Lewis "Scooter" Libby, personally came to Langley to intimidate analysts on several occasions. Secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld and his then deputy secretary, Paul Wolfowitz, constructed their own intelligence bureau called the office of special plans to sidestep the CIA and shunt disinformation corroborating the administration arguments directly to the White House.

"The administration used intelligence not to inform decision-making, but to justify a decision already made", Paul Pillar, then the chief middle-east analyst for the CIA, writes in the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs. "The process did not involve intelligence work designed to find dangers not yet discovered or to inform decisions not yet made. Instead, it involved research to find evidence in support of a specific line of argument – that Saddam was cooperating with al-Qaida – which in turn was being used to justify a specific policy decision."

Also by Sidney Blumenthal in openDemocracy:
-"Bush's Potemkin village presidency"
(September 2005)
-"Republican tremors" (October 2005)
-"George W Bush: home alone" (October 2005)
-"Dick Cheney's day of reckoning"
(November 2005)
-"Dick Cheney's shadow play" (November 2005)
-"Condoleezza Rice's troubling journey" (December 2005)
-"Bush's surveillance network"
(December 2005)
-"Bush's shadow government exposed" (January 2006)
-"The Republican system" (January 2006)
-"George W Bush: running on empty" (February 2006)
-"The rules of the game" (February 2006)
-" The imprisoned president"(March 2006)
-"Bush's world of delusion" (March 2006)
-"Bush's truth"
(April 2006)
-"The secret passion of George W Bush"
(May 2006)

Porter Goss's achievement

But despite urgent pressures to report to the contrary, the CIA never reported that Saddam presented an imminent national-security threat to the United States, that he was near to developing nuclear weapons or that he had any ties to al-Qaida. Moreover, analysts predicted a protracted insurgency after an invasion of Iraq. Tenet, despite the lack of cooperation from the CIA's directorate of intelligence, acted as backslapper for the administration's policy.

The White House was in a fury. The CIA's professionalism was perceived as political warfare, and the agency apparently was seen as the centre of a conspiracy to overthrow the administration. Inside the offices of the president, the vice-president and the secretary of defence, the CIA was referred to as a treasonous enemy. "If we lived in a primitive age, the ground at Langley would be laid waste and salted, and there would be heads on spikes", wrote neo-conservative columnist David Brooks in the New York Times on 13 November 2004, citing White House officials and "members of the executive branch" as his sources. Reflecting their rage, he called on Bush to "punish the mutineers ... If the C.I.A. pays no price for its behavior, no one will pay a price for anything, and everything is permitted. That, Mr. President, is a slam-dunk."

Goss combined the old-school tie with cynical zealotry. A graduate of Hotchkiss and Yale (class of 1960), married to a Pittsburgh heiress, he served as a CIA operative, left the agency for residence on Sanibel Island, Florida, a resort for the wealthy, bought the local paper, sold it for a fortune, and was elected to the House of Representatives in 1988. There he struck up an alliance with Newt Gingrich and his band of radicals. And after they captured the House in 1994, Goss used his CIA credential to become chairman of the intelligence committee.

In that position, he proved his bona fides to the Bush administration time and again. "Those weapons are there," he declared after David Kay, head of the Iraq Survey Group, reported that there were no WMD. He blocked investigations into detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib and into pre-war disinformation churned by the neo-conservatives' favourite Iraqi exile, Ahmad Chalabi. "I would say that the oversight has worked well in matters relating to Mr Chalabi," Goss said.

He also derided the notion of investigating the outing of covert CIA operative Valerie Plame Wilson: "Somebody sends me a blue dress and some DNA, I'll have an investigation." Goss was on board with the cavalier way with which Plame was outed, a breach that revealed ingrained contempt for the agency as well as the supremacy of political objectives over national security.

On 21 April 2005, his mission dictated by Bush's political imperatives, Goss became CIA director. Immediately, he sent a memo to all employees, ordering them to "support the administration and its policies in our work." He underscored the supremacy of the party line: "As agency employees we do not identify with, support, or champion opposition to the administration or its policies."

He installed four political aides to run the agency from his offices on the seventh floor at Langley. Within weeks, an exodus of professionals began, and turned into a flood. In the directorate of operations, he lost the director, two deputies and more than a dozen department and division directors and station chiefs out in the field. In the directorate of intelligence, dozens took early retirement. Four former operations chiefs, horrified by the carnage, sought to meet with Goss, but he refused.

The intelligence turf wars

As a result of hectoring by the 9/11 commission, Bush established the position of national director of intelligence (NDI), a new layer of bureaucracy, but one that lacked operational or intelligence resources of its own. Suddenly, the CIA's pre-eminence was shattered. Since its creation by the National Security Act of 1947 at the onset of the cold war, the CIA had dominated the intelligence community. But now the "central" part of the CIA was handed off to the new NDI, whose lines of authority and power were untested and uncertain.

The "global war on terror," meanwhile, was a boon to the concentration of power within the Pentagon, and that department gained control of more than 80% of the total budget for intelligence. Without its assigned place at the top of the pyramid, the CIA became disoriented and ever more peripheral. That suited Rumsfeld's empire-building. And the CIA's plight was aggravated by the power-grabs of the first DNI, John Negroponte (coincidentally an old Yale classmate of Goss). Without natural functions of its own, Negroponte's office seized them from the CIA.

Acting on the president's charge, Goss in effect purged the CIA. He was even conducting lie-detector interrogations of officers to root out the sources of stories leaked to the press – to the Washington Post, for example, in its Pulitzer Prize-winning exposé of CIA "black-site" prisons where detainees are jailed without any due process, Red Cross inspection or Geneva conventions protection. On 20 April 2006, a CIA agent, Mary O McCarthy, was fired for her contact with a reporter. Like others subjected to questioning, she was asked her political affiliation.

But Goss's purging weakened the agency and his own inherent bureaucratic strength in relation to his voracious rivals at the directorate of national intelligence and the Pentagon. The more he served as the president's loyalist, the less was his power. By fulfilling his mission, he diminished himself. The butcher's defence of the integrity of the CIA from the directorate and the Pentagon lacked all conviction.

Goss's attempt to run the CIA through his own band of loyalists proved his ultimate undoing. It turned out that the "gosslings," as they were known at Langley (after "quislings"), had unsavoury connections that trailed them into the agency. An unintended consequence of Goss's dependence on his team of political hatchet-men was that his future was dependent on their pasts.

The calibre of Goss's CIA

As Goss parried with Negroponte and Rumsfeld, federal investigators began to close in on his third-ranked official, in charge of contracting, Kyle "Dusty" Foggo, for possibly granting illegal contracts to Brent Wilkes, the military contractor named as "co-conspirator No. 1" in the indictment of Randy "Duke" Cunningham, a convicted former Republican Representative, now serving eight years in prison for accepting $2.4 million in bribes. Wilkes, who gave $630,000 in cash and favours to Cunningham, remains under investigation by prosecutors. Cunningham has confessed to accepting a $100,000 bribe from "co-conspirator No. 1." Wilkes' business associate, Mitchell Wade, has pleaded guilty to bribing Cunningham.

For years, Wilkes hosted "hospitality suites" at the Watergate Hotel for congressmen and other associates that involved poker games and, allegedly, prostitutes. That, too, is under investigation. Foggo has admitted his presence, but "just for poker". At least six congressmen, unnamed so far, are alleged to have participated. Goss has denied attending as CIA director, but not as a congressman. Yet another hand at the poker table has been identified as Brant Bassett, aka "Nine Fingers." Bassett was Goss's staff director on the House intelligence committee and was hired as a consultant to the CIA's directorate of operations.

Foggo and Wilkes are best friends going back to high school in suburban San Diego. They were roommates at San Diego State, where they were members of Young Republicans, were best men at each other's weddings, and named their sons after each other. Wilkes pays for a joint wine locker for them at the Capital Grille steakhouse favoured by lobbyists and Republican congressmen.

The White House announcement of Goss's resignation was incredibly abrupt, without advance warning or without a successor named. White House aides frenetically briefed the press that the sole reason was an internecine conflict between Goss and Negroponte. But such an internal controversy could have been managed for a smooth transition. Something else appeared to be at work.

Indeed, in March, the CIA's inspector-general had launched an investigation into Foggo's relationship with Wilkes, who had received CIA contracts in Iraq. Three days after Goss left on 5 May 2006, Foggo quit, too; on 12 May, his Virginia home and CIA office were searched by the FBI and CIA investigators. In a highly unusual development on 9 May, the special agent in charge of the defence criminal investigative service's investigation in the "Duke" Cunningham case, Rick Gwin spoke publicly: "This is much bigger and wider than just Randy 'Duke' Cunningham", he told southern California's North County Times. "All that has just not come out yet, but it won't be much longer and then you will know just how widespread this is."

The CIA's nemesis

On 8 May, President Bush announced his nomination of General Michael Hayden, the former director of the national security agency (NSA) and currently Negroponte's deputy, as the new CIA director. He has distinguished himself as a loyalist to the administration by using his uniform as a shield against the heat generated by the revelation of illegal domestic surveillance by the NSA.

Regardless of anodyne assurances offered in his forthcoming congressional testimony, Hayden will preside over the liquidation of the CIA as it has been known. The George HW Bush-era CIA headquarters building in Langley will of course remain standing. But the agency will be chipped apart, some of its key parts absorbed by other agencies, with the Pentagon emerging as the ultimate winner.

The militarisation of intelligence under Bush is likely to guarantee military solutions above other options. Uniformed officers trained to identity military threats and trends will take over economic and political intelligence for which they are untrained and often incapable and whose priorities will skew analysis.

But the bias toward the military option will be one that the military in the end will dislike. It will find itself increasingly bearing the brunt of foreign policy and stretched beyond endurance. The vicious cycle leads to a downward spiral. And Hayden's story will be like a dull shadow of Powell's – a tale of a "good soldier" who salutes, gets promoted, is used and abused, and is finally discarded.

No president has ever before ruined an agency at the heart of national security out of pique and vengeance. The manipulation of intelligence by political leadership demands ever tightened control. But political purges provide only temporary relief from the widening crisis of policy failure.

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